For the Anxious at Christmas

We wrestled our way home through post-Thanksgiving traffic where all the cheery thankfulness of our nation had by then dissipated and was replaced by a mostly a grumpy, rushed, chaotic nation (of which I was chief after one too many reckless driver cut us off). To add insult to injury, while driving we listened to a sermon from an unknown preacher on anxiety, which was mostly just seven reasons you shouldn't be anxious and a lot of shouting. Thirteen hours into what was supposed to be an eleven hour drive, my anxiety was high.

And then today, it's all photos of homes decked for Christmas already and Cyber Monday deals and an empty refrigerator and three article deadlines + a book review for a book I haven't gotten through yet. Another five opportunities for anxiety. 

I've always been a more mellow sort, more prone to depression than anxiety, but I think two things happen as we age. The first is suffering adds to suffering adds to suffering. And the second is we are faced with a choice: to face the suffering or to medicate ourselves into unfeelingness. December is a month ripe for the latter. It is the one month of the year we indulge every good and beautiful thing and many distorted and disordered things. Perhaps it is all childhood and magical and sparkly and warm in your sphere, and if so, enjoy it. But that is not the reality for most Americans, or the rest of the world. There is a reason reports of anxiety rise leading up to the holidays. Folks are either completely alone or they are engulfed in the mess of materialism. Folks are in poverty or they are in excess. Folks are mourning or they are overwhelmed. 

Almost every person I know is suffering right now. Perhaps they're masking it with trite conversation or seasoned optimism, but the cares of this world are pressing against them in pain and in loss, in grief and in dashed hope, in loneliness and in fear. In our most vulnerable moments we admit it, but in December it is easy to bake another cookie, hang another garland, play another classic, and wrap another gift, to forget, for just a moment. 

Last night Nate and I watched a movie a friend recommended, and in it, one father who lost his child says to another father who has just lost his child, "You have to feel it, press into it, remember the memories. If you try to run away, to not feel it, you'll begin to forget." I wept when I heard that because there are a lot of memories in my life I've tried to run away from. A lot of feelings I've neglected to feel. And a lot of emotions I've stuffed to the bottom. I'm in a season where those are being dug up and stared at, by me and others, and I have to remember the dark before the dawn. December is always difficult for me, but this year I sense it heavier than ever. 

The only remedy for my anxiety is to remember and rejoice, remember and rejoice, remember and rejoice. Remember my God in flesh who was born in poverty and lavished with the gifts of a king, who was a baby boy born when all the other baby boys were killed, who was refused the inn and found haven with the animals, who knew loss and grief and loneliness and death. And then, when I can and only when I can, rejoice.

There is no remedy for anxiety except this: for the anxious, Christmas

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* I know for some folks the mental illness of anxiety is debilitating, and there is no reductionistic answer to that kind of anxiety. Medication is a common grace, and one we should all feel free to use if it works for us. Also counseling (which is a common grace I'm partaking in these days). Also good, healthy foods and routines. 

Contradictory Belief

I'm always looking for the easy way out. I'm inherently lazy, short-sighted, impatient, passive, or fill in the blank with some other vice. I do not like walking in the tension of anything and if there is a more comfortable option, I will take it with a cherry on top, thank you very much. I fear the unknown—especially when the unknown exists within me, not just around me. 

I was created from dust and bone fragments, so I don't know why I would believe perfection is possible before the return of Christ. I seek it though, friends. I seek it. 

One of my favorite passages of Scripture, one I return to again and again and again is from Mark chapter 9. Jesus had just undergone the transfiguration and had come back down the mountain, running into the father of a demon possessed boy. The father cries to Jesus, "If you can do anything, have compassion and help us!" Sweet Jesus response with incredulity: "If? If I can heal him? All things are possible to him who believes." And this, my favorite line in all of scripture, the father's response: "I believe. Help my unbelief."

I come from a charismatic background, not name it and claim it, health, wealth, and prosperity, but certainly a side that believes words have life or death in them. That if we speak death, we run the risk of experiencing it, and if we speak life, then the odds are higher we'll experience it. I look back now and see the ways I misunderstood and ingested theology without parsing it for myself, eating the words given me instead of the Scripture informing them. But what resulted for me is that I became a bundle of fear, afraid to ever speak what was actually true about myself, my sin, my fears, my anxieties, and only willing to speak what was not true, that I had assurance, joy, peace, faith. I didn't know how to walk in the tension of speaking what was not fully true but which I wanted to be true and speaking what was true but I wanted to be untrue. I could not have said, "Help my unbelief," because to confess unbelief seemed like the pathway to destruction, but I felt like a liar every time I said, "I believe."

All that changed in early 2010, when I could not live the lie of belief anymore. I pounded my fists into the tan carpet of my rental house and cried harder than ever before and said to God, for the first time ever, "I do not believe in you!" I have never heard the audible voice of God, but I will never forget the strong impression of the Father picking up his robes and running toward me saying, "Finally. We can begin with this." 

I think there are two temptations for the Christian who doubts. The first is to only say what is yet untrue (I believe) and the second is to only say what is true (I have unbelief). If you come from a background, like mine, where to utter words of unbelief means you are silenced by well-meaning friends who say you're just going through a hard time and it will wear off, you probably will be bound up in living the lie of belief, and, as Jeremiah 17 says, "You will not see good when it comes." If you come from a background where it's okay to have struggles and wrestle with truth and faith, you might be afraid to say the words, "I believe," because you don't want to lie about having something you don't fully have. 

What is the doubting Christian to do? 

This is why this passage from Mark 9 is so helpful for me. This father shows it is possible to say two conflicting things, neither of which are fully true and both of which are absolutely true at the same time. I believe. Help my unbelief. Both true. Both not all the way true. Both seeming to be in conflict with one another. 

I have met a few Christians who have simple faith. They believe the Bible is true, absolutely. They believe Jesus rose from the grave. They believe they are saved. They never wrestle with Scripture in a way that leads to confusion or tension or questions. They simply believe. I know very few of these. The great majority of Christians I know have complicated faiths. They all have a different history behind them that informs their reading and study of Scripture. They all have varying levels of schooling. They have different personalities, different propensities, different desires. And all of these things are informing their belief in some way—and their unbelief in some ways. 

The Christian who can say, "I believe. Help my unbelief," is the Christian who knows with absolute certainty that full, unfaltering faith is possible, and also that they do not have it, not fully. They know they are in progress, going, as Paul said, "from one degree of glory to another" and "the righteousness of God is being revealed faith to faith." We're not there yet, is what Paul was saying, farther up, further in, more to go until we arrive on eternity's shores. 

If you're someone who struggles to believe all the way through all the things you think Christians believe all the way through, I just wanted to say, hey, I'm with you. I struggle with that. My struggles with faith didn't cease the moment the gospel was unveiled to me. The difference was a difference by degrees: I saw more dimly before, and now less dimly, and will see even less dimly tomorrow. There are so many things about faith and the Bible that seem confusing to me, sometimes even more the more I study and read. I see what seem to be inconsistencies in Scripture, in other Christians, in the world in which we live. I don't understand fully how justification or sanctification or mortification or vivification work. I don't always know what I'm supposed to do and what only God can do. Here's what I know how to do: 

I know how to pray, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief." 

I'm praying for you today, that you can pray that prayer, believing he hears and heals and finishes what you cannot with mere words and weak faith. 

There is no magic bullet for your faith to be bolstered. I'll share a few things have grown and strengthened mine, but it might be something entirely different for you and that's okay. This photo is of the books on our shelves that have helped me realize I am not alone in this wrestle. I'll also link to a few below.

Spiritual Depression by Martyn Lloyd Jones

Help My Unbelief from Barnabas Piper

Sensing Jesus (now called The Imperfect Pastor) from Zack Eswine

Spurgeon's Sorrows by Zack Eswine

This sermon from Matt Chandler from before he was my pastor (I listened to it sixteen times in the spring of 2010).

How to Forgive a Year

  Everyone, it seems, had a hard 2016 and it reminds me of the first months of 2015, how I stood in a small circle talking with my close friend and the man who would be my husband (although I didn't know then). My friend and I had said good riddance to 2014 and had our arms flung wide open to what God might do in 2015 and we said so. But the man who become my husband in only a few months said, "You know, 2014 was a hard year. The first half I just tried to bear it. But the second half was actually good and sweet. The Lord taught me so much about His character and my sin."

I didn't fall in love with him just then, but I think there was a stirring inside of me in that moment that pointed to the goodness ahead. I cannot say for sure, but I think so. There was—and is—a tenderness in him that draws me to him again and again. The tenderness is not to others only, but to God. He has a self-awareness resulting in a God-awareness that I have seen rarely, especially in men.

Being able to forgive a year for it's badness because of God's goodness is something I am working to do right now. The other morning, the man who became my husband and I stood, face to face in the kitchen. His sadness overwhelmed me, as I'm sure my sadness has overwhelmed him this year. I wanted to fix what was wrong and I couldn't. Nothing I could say could nudge the sadness away from him. All I could say was not that God was good in what he did (and didn't do), but that he is good. Today. Right now. In this moment, he is working something deep into our sadness and bringing light to the darkness.

Screen Shot 2017-01-18 at 9.09.34 AMI have been reading the book of Job this month and I am encouraged by it in a way unlike ever before. I've struggled with Job in the past, either I didn't want my joy tinged with his suffering or I didn't want my suffering spiraling down more. But God, in his goodness, has me reading the whole book this month and every morning I am struck more and more by the deep wells of truth in it. His friends did some things right and said some things wrong. Job did some things right and said some things wrong. It is not a prescriptive book, it is descriptive of Job's life and walk with the Lord, but it can be a comfort to us in its descriptiveness.

One verse in particular keeps coming around again and again in my heart. The first part is familiar, "Though he slay me, I will hope in him," but the second is less so, "yet I will argue my ways to his face." That word "yet" catches me every time. It is the equivalent of our word, "but." As in, "Yes, mom, I'll clean up my room, but first let me tell you this story." Job says, "I trust, but also..." It reminds me of the father of the demoniac in Mark 9, "I believe. [But] help my unbelief." I added the "but" in there, but it's implied: a statement of truth and another statement of truth. It is possible to have those conflicting truths smashed right up against one another, fighting one another for breath.

I believe. Help my unbelief. I hope in you. I will still argue my ways to your face.

If your 2016 was like mine, and like almost everyone I know, you probably need a "yet" in your life today. God was in there, working goodness in a profoundly difficult political season, in a devastatingly violent year, in a year polarizing like I have never seen in my life. God was in there when we miscarried and when we had to move suddenly and when we lost so much money on our house and when a hundred thousand small things pressed themselves against me and you and everyone we know. God was there. But also God is here, and he can handle our unbelief and our ways argued straight to his face. He isn't surprised by the sadness we can't shake and the anger we're surprised by and the fear we go to bed with and the unknowns we wake to. He is the God who is here.

This month I am working to forgive a year, which means I am working for forgive God (not because he did wrong, but because I have perceived his goodness to be badness and been angry at him for it) and to forgive myself and to forgive others and to forgive people I don't even know. I am working to say, "That happened and was hard and there is no guarantee it gets easier (in fact, it probably just gets harder), but though he slays me, my hope is in him. Not the future him. The today him. The God who is."

. . .

Meditating on these is helping me. Maybe it will help you too. 

When the Dark Night Seems to Have No End

Screen Shot 2016-10-17 at 9.44.59 AMI've been wondering, these past few weeks, when did it become a sin to be sad? We have become little band-aid applicants, carrying them with us everywhere in the form of advice, counsel, scoldings, and, for those unwilling to soil our hands, corridor whispers. We are faster than an ambulance in our rush to clean the scene, sweep away the proof, and move on to bigger and better and happier things. Does anyone think, I think to myself, how silly it is to do such a mediocre job when what is needed is surgery only God can perform? Two verses, but mostly the same, have played on repeat for me in this year of sadness (Is it okay if I say that out loud? I have nothing to prove, nothing to preach, and nothing to lose.). They are from the book of Jeremiah (that great Lamenter for whom we seem to have little use in happy, clappy modern Christianity):

From prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. (Jer. 6:13-14 & Jer. 8:11)

It is against our nature, I think, to apply pressure to a wound, everything in us wants to be soft with another's and softer with our own, to handle with care or kid gloves or not handle at all. But the greater temptation is to cover a wound lightly and call it healed: out of sight, out of mind.

I don't know when exactly the gauging came, but this morning I read my husband's text in the still dark morning and send my own back. Our prayers are staccato sorts: Help. Pray. Please. Love. Sorry. Forgive. Forgiven. Love. Love. Love. Marriage is beautiful, but sin crouches at our door waiting to pounce and we must rule over it, even with staccato prayers in still dark mornings (Gen.4:6-8). But how did we get here? How did the wound grow from small and tolerable paper cuts to tears on the way home from church and pulsing guilt for the seeming missteps of our year? We both believe in a sovereign God, don't we? Why then would we falter for one second even, in our belief that He directs our every step—even if it feels like we've fallen into a ravine and there is a cliff above us and a rushing river below us—death no matter where we look.

Maybe this isn't you. Maybe you're one of those happy, clappy Christians who has never fallen into a ravine or had to scale a cliff or navigate roaring waters. I don't envy you, although I suppose I should. My pastor used to say, "Suffering is coming for us all. If you haven't experienced it yet, it's coming for you." And I used to believe it had come for me and I had gotten through it okay. I was wrong, and there's probably more ahead. The truth is I don't understand the happy, clappy Christians. I really don't. I don't understand those who would heal a wound lightly (though I've been guilty of it a time or seven), thinking it would be enough to have paid attention for a second and then washed my hands of it, having done my part smartly enough.

There are so many things this year I can't even begin to tell you but they all mount one big awful offense: God cannot be trusted. I'm horrified to say those words at all, and especially horrified that the offense hurts me worse than it hurts Him. It also isn't true, and I know this with every fiber of my being. But the arrows carrying their deceitful message come flying still. Who here hasn't felt the flaming arrows of untruth come battering down on their weary souls? If you say you have not and will not, I beg you to read the accounts of Paul again and then talk to me. What I cannot figure out, though, is how stalwart he stayed through it all.

What I am saying is the same as what Hemingway once said, "This world breaks everyone," and also "And afterward we are strong at the broken places." But to pretend the brokenness and the broken places don't happen or don't hurt or need to be fixed speedily or need some form of happy, clappy Christian healing with immediacy, is to lie, not only to the wounded, but to yourself most of all.

It is no sin to be sad. I have believed that theologically for a long time and it is being tested in the crucible of truth now. Can one be sad and still trust God? Can one mourn and still know God is good? Can one weep and still know morning is coming? Can one grope blindly in the long night without one single doubt that God stands there, somewhere and certain, in the sea of darkness?

I have thought those things might be possible and now I know they are. My sadness is not a sin, but I will not call "Peace, Peace" until the heavy hand of healing is applied all the way through.

. . .

Maybe you are sad today too, maybe the dark night of the soul has lasted far longer and been far darker than you thought, or maybe you know someone for whom that dark night is their reality. Nate and I watched a film this week where the lunacy of the main character was not portrayed as such from his perspective. To him, his friends were not imaginary, they were as real as he was. We remarked, at the stunning conclusion, how it helped us to have empathy for our friends walking through forms of depression, lunacy, and irrationality in a way we might not have had before. Their pain is as real to them as our pain is to us. I do not need to feel their pain precisely to understand its reality. I pray for this for us all.

Everyone you meet today is carrying some hidden weight, and the temptation to make your own greater in comparison, or to overlook theirs for laziness or fear, will be great. I beg you today: Do not heal a wound lightly, your own or someone else's. Do not cry, "Peace! Peace!" simply because you want their sunny disposition returned. Sit across from them and ask what hurts and don't offer counsel or advice or bandaids, ask only for the Savior to be near, because His word says He is and He is the only One who can heal all the way through to the other side.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted     and saves the crushed in spirit. (Ps. 34:18)

Prepositions, Autumn, and Waiting

Red Leaves The tree across the street has started changing to red and it stands like a small flame against the darkening green of summer's maturation. It is strange, isn't it, how a tree proves its life by its death? We could learn one or two things from the trees.

The waiting grows heavy inside me. Today I talked with a friend who for many years prayed over the distance, spiritual, emotional, geographical, etc., of her family and today we rejoiced because all the immediate ones live within just a few blocks of her. Last week I talked with a friend who waited a long, long time for the baby who came not of her womb, but who came just the same. This morning a friend tells me the job she's been wanting is happening soon.

We're all waiting for something, aren't we? Funny how we order the waits, though. Certain what we're waiting for is holier or healthier or wholer or harder than what another is waiting for. He's waiting for his church to grow. She's waiting for her community to deepen. He's waiting for a plan to surface. She's waiting for a husband. He's waiting for his marriage to heal. She's waiting for home. He is too. We all are actually.

This year I have grown weary with the hierarchies and echelons of growth in the gospel. I have tired of the corner markets and church-speak. I have wished there were more places where Christians could be tired and weary and wait or even just be okay—knowing that their time there might be longer or harder or deeper than they knew. And that we didn't all rush to cheer them up, make them look on the bright side, try to rescue them from the depths of what God might be leading them into, keeping them in the shallowness of faith. An unchecked faith is not the faith I want to have.

I am not the girl I was a year and a half ago. I described depression to a friend of mine who lives with a sufferer of it: it was like feeling like a shell of yourself, knowing the inside must exist somewhere, but lacking the arms and hands to feel around for it. I talk in the past tense to her, but the present tense to myself. I remind myself that Christ in me is my hope of glory. Even if I never find myself again, Christ is in me, this I do know.

Maybe "myself" was never all she was cracked up to be.

. . .

I have hurried through my day, trying to order it by tasks which must be done and tasks which might be done and tasks which mustn't be done no matter how tempting they might be. Writing this is of the latter sort, but self-control is not my strong point.

Plans thwarted by a geographical mishap (I made an appointment for the wrong location) I am driving home and I see the red tree, redder than she was this morning. Or maybe it's the angle of the sun. It doesn't matter. She is dying. Beautifully. But still dying. It's more complicated, I know, but part of her is dying. A useful part of her, a beautiful part of her, and a necessary part of her—the yellow comes, then soon orange, now red, and then brown, and then, like the leaf I found in our back yard yesterday: dead. Autumn is a slow and brilliant death here on the east coast but only if you pay attention.

It is a necessary death but not an eternal one. It is a scheduled death and not an immature one. It is the mark of growth, of maturity, of another year come and gone. It is death, but it is not the end.

The leaves which will come next year (and they will come, mark my words) will be the same and so very different. Of their former selves, but not their former selves. It is like that with us: one day, eternally, but also right now: being renewed. Being built into. Being transformed. Being saved. Being.

. . .

I have grown heavy with waiting and most days I can't even articulate what I'm waiting for—this is the fog we have been walking through, arms outstretched, trying to feel around for something that feels familiar. So many wonderful strangers have put things in our arms—resources, people, pastors, contacts—but none of those things mean as much as the simple companionship of being known and loved just as you are without what you can bring or be brought.

This weekend we visited some deep and dear friends and one asked me about a traumatic event from last year, to describe it in detail. I shook, but I told it all. The next day, his wife asked me about two more traumatic events from last year, and I told her all of too. It was cathartic in a way I had forgotten, the way true friendship just asks for the story and not for the success.

It has been so long since I felt the freedom to just be sad and hurt and confused and a little bit dead inside—and not feel the need to produce something of it. I know the time to produce will come again, but right now is not that time.

And that's okay. It's okay.

Christ in me is the hope of glory and hope cannot disappoint.

Spring cannot help herself, she will come again.

. . .

I don't know where you are today friend, maybe you're farther north than me and autumn's death dance is further along in your life. Maybe you're in the dead of winter and the stark cowlicks of seemingly dead branches are poking you in every which way. I don't know. I want to encourage you with these lyrics, though, a song I have had on my mind much, Sovereign Over Us performed here by Aaron Keyes. Pay attention to the prepositions, though, that's where God is most at work.

There is strength within the sorrow There is beauty in our tears

And You meet us in our mourning With a love that casts out fear

You are working in our waiting You're sanctifying us

When beyond our understanding You're teaching us to trust