Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

A Better Vantage Point

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Jeff and I attended a pastors and spouses retreat this week. All the costs were completely covered– it was a generous gift from God through the retreat center. My parents took care of the kids for a few days, and we had a good time with other couples in ministry. We ate and rested well.

During the retreat, we decided to hike up the mountain on the property. It was the perfect combination of strenuous enough to be interesting and short enough to be survivable (for me). We talked and caught up as we followed the trail one mile up, comparing heart rates on our watches for fun and asking Siri about our elevation every now and again.

At one point, the trail seemed to end abruptly by a small waterfall. The next tree markings were visible only after we climbed up a set of large wet rocks streaming with water from the overflowing fall. Here, it looked as if part of the mountain had been plowed through, and I stopped to wonder aloud at how the massive rocks came to rest the way they did. The Ice Age was Jeff’s guess, and though we weren’t sure about the geology, it wasn’t hard to imagine a glacier moving through the mountain to expose bare rock, leaving huge stones in its wake and paving a miniature gorge for the waterfall and stream.

Soon, we arrived at a small lookout and were taking in the nice, though not exceptional, partial view, when another couple hiking down toward us pointed to a wooden cross 30 yards away marking the actual overlook. We made our way over and as we reached the rock ledge, trees by the trail gave way to a clearing with a stunning, 180 degree panoramic view.

Close to us by our left, about 300 feet below, we saw the retreat center buildings. In the far distance, 20 miles out, mountains filled the horizon. A set of almost indiscernible white lines on the base of one, we identified as a ski resort. A slight break and dip in the ranges toward our 2 o’clock, the Delaware Water Gap. Between us and the mountains, a valley of smaller, rolling hills covered with leafless trees and scattered patches of evergreens. At almost 2000 feet elevation, the view was so far and wide, I was dizzy from disorientation. “We’re not used to seeing this far out,” Jeff said.

The next day, back in our room, we talked and prayed about ministry and heavy things on our hearts. And as we prayed, I thought again of the huge rock formation on our hike and whatever had left it behind. I thought of how there is only One who knows how they came to be not only because he directs all things, but because he was there as witness to its history. And in view of God’s eternity, I was comforted.

I remember being fresh out of college and talking to older people who seemed to throw around years when they spoke. As a student and in your twenties, thinking about next semester is thinking about the future, and waiting one or two years for anything feels unbearable. We wrestled with questions regarding God’s will, which often meant knowing what to do the coming summer or next year, or maybe plans for after graduation. But these elders, who in retrospect were probably not too much older than me now, tossed about decades like semesters. In a few sentences, they’d talk about spending ten years in this country, then seven years in that one, now going on four here. Because of their age, their view of time was different than mine. Their perspective, unsurprisingly, meant when they spoke about the future, they were was less anxious, less urgent, less impatient.

Though I am now old enough to need to recalculate my age every time my daughters ask and I can’t recall off the top of my head how long I’ve been back in Staten Island, I’m still young. Young enough to give into anxiety about the near future, to be utilitarian in my decisions— wanting visible, guaranteed results to think something is worth my time. I get restless in the mundane and give up too easily when prayers are not yet answered. I feel worried when God doesn’t meet me experientially in the few hours I set aside to be in prayer and the Scriptures. I wonder if I’m missing his voice if I don’t hear from him this very instant and I get frazzled over hiccups in plans for family or ministry.

But, God. From the beginning, through the ages, thousands of years from now, he was and is and will be. In my restless, anxious toil, meditating on God’s eternal nature is often the force behind the seismic perspective shift I need.

When longing for swift deliverance, Christians are exhorted to remember that our view of slowness is not his. That though ten years may sound like a hundred to us, to him a thousand are as a day. That his purposes for our suffering go far beyond our years and through unsearchable paths into eternity.

When discouraged about the slowness of his Kingdom’s advancement in ourselves, our families, and our churches, we look to the God of ages past whose view of slowness is not the same as ours.  We remember that, “He has moved like rapids — quickly and vivaciously — and startling to see. But the Spirit also moves like a glacier — subtly and cumulatively — and sometimes so imperceptibly that the believer might be unaware of his work.” It may seem slow from my vantage point, but his movement through history is steady, unimaginably powerful, unstoppable.

God’s eternal view of time directly speaks against my need for fast answers, quick fixes, and instant results. He is not working on my timeline– and his eternity is good news for me. As a parent, my discipline is unkind when I feel the pressure of time and am unsure of the future. I begin to demand immediate perfection from my children, correcting in fear, not faith and love. God though, does not panic at the passing of time, nor does he resort to flustered last ditch efforts in his dealings with me. His eternity means patience with his impatient children.

Sometimes, in his goodness, God gives us glimpses of his good purposes, lookouts if you will over a few years of our lives. At the retreat, Jeff and I were placed in the same room we had been in two summers ago. We’d gone with our church and I was barely surviving. As I surveyed the room this visit, I could still see the set up we had then– the girls on one bed, the pack-and-plays side-by-side for our foster boys, and just enough floor space to walk from the entrance to the bathroom. I remembered not being able to sleep, being anxious about sick kids, and feeling upset toward God about both.

The days felt so long back then, so it surprised me how two years could fly by and find us at the same location but in such a different place. The boys are with another family and we welcomed our now almost 18 month old since then. There have been new beginnings in writing, headway made in homeschooling, lessons learned in life and ministry.

But there is still all I have been slow to learn, prayers God has yet to answer. I see recurring requests and repeated struggles thematically spanning years through the pages of my journals. There are new unknowns my mind fills with threatening futures. We all carry sadnesses yet to be healed, questions yet to be answered. There are long walks through the valleys of the shadow of death still to come.

So we look at our everlasting Rock (Is. 26:4).  One day, we will ascend the heights, having received the eternal weight of glory, to where our deepest sorrows will seem “light and momentary” and the longest seasons of darkness, “a little while” (2 Cor. 4:17, 1 Pet. 1:6).  Until then, we trust our eternal God has a view of our lives so complete, and from there his purposes so spectacular, we would be dizzied by its vastness and beauty if given a peek.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
Psalm 90:1-4 (ESV)

Motherhood & Family, Truth & Orthodoxy

What A Daddy-Daughter Moment Taught Me About Fear And Our Father

During my second pregnancy, my struggle with anxiety led to sleepless nights and terrible nightmares. Though all the things I feared were hypothetical futures, I couldn’t help being anxious about the health and wellbeing of our baby. One night, as I lay in bed, there was a crash that came from the other room. I don’t remember what it was now but at the time, I knew it wasn’t a big deal. My daughter on the other hand, woke up and started to cry loudly for us. I saw her daddy (my heroic husband!) run in, scoop her up in his arms, and hush her back to sleep. That night, I recognized that I had just seen a small parable to God’s care for me and there was a paradigm shift in the way I handled my own fear and anxiety.

Though Jeff knew that our daughter was not in any danger and there was nothing to fear, he rushed to comfort her simply because she was scared. 1 Peter 5:8 was brought to mind, where we are told to cast our anxiety onto God because he cares for us. Up until that point, I had been trying to fight my own anxiety through telling myself reasons why I shouldn’t be afraid. First, there was nothing that indicated strongly that there was something wrong. And secondly, as a Christian, I trust that even if my worst fears came true, God would still use it for good, God still loved us, and he could be trusted. But still, I was afraid. Seeing my husband respond to our daughter even though he knew that the source of the scary sound wasn’t dangerous, I realized that the comfort offered by Scripture is not only that God cares about the things we are anxious about (i.e. that he knows what we need and will take care of us), but that God also cares about the fact that we are afraid. In other words, God does not only address my anxiety and fear by telling me why I should not be afraid, but he invites me to bring my fear and feelings of anxiety to him as his child.

I think that often, the way people (myself included) address fear and anxiety is inadequate because we think we can command ourselves or others out of being fearful.  Or we think that we can just logically reason our way out of it.  Or that having “enough faith” means being unafraid. In this, we miss the fact that life is scary. And we miss the tender words that God has for those of us who are easily afraid.

Jeff didn’t sternly correct our daughter when she cried because hearing a huge crash in the middle of the night and not knowing what it is when you’re only two years old — that is scary. In the same way, living in a broken and fallen world is scary. The world is not as God made it to be and is not yet what it will be when he returns, and so there is sickness, disease, suffering, pain, and death inevitably weaved somehow into all of our futures. Knowing that health and long lives and physical safety isn’t promised to those we love is scary. Stepping into relationships with sinful people who can (and will) hurt us is scary.  Having our eyes open to the fact that any sense of our own security in terms of physical safety, health, financial stability, etc. is really an illusion is scary. And, “don’t be anxious, just trust God more!” though well-intentioned is not always the most helpful thing for those of us with fearful hearts to hear.

It’s true that oftentimes, I need to see that my anxiety is stemming from illogical or unbiblical thinking. I may need to remember that “non-information is not information” (as my husband has told me) because I tend to fill in unknowns with worst-case scenarios. I may need to preach to myself from Matthew 6 about  how worrying doesn’t accomplish anything, how God provides all we truly need, how he cares for even the sparrows, and other precious truths such as these. But sometimes, though what I fear may not happen and I know God would pull me through it even if it did, the very fact that it could happen fills me with dread. In these moments, knowing and believing the truth doesn’t necessarily take away the fear I feel, and I am learning 1. that’s okay, and 2. what to do with the fear that remains. I am seeing that sometimes the most comforting thing is not  hearing why I shouldn’t be afraid, but knowing that when I am afraid, my Father is near, he loves me, and he’s got me.

In a short video, Is It a Sin to Be Afraid?, Ed Welch talks about the fact that the New Testament addresses fear not as a sin, but a given in a scary world, and how the fearful are tenderly called to turn to God in the midst of their fear. I love how he describes the passage in Luke 12:32 here:

The imperative form in Scripture has a little more breadth than we give it credit for…The passage in Luke ‘Don’t be afraid. Don’t be anxious,’ sounds as if it is a command and then it ends with this wonderful sort of conclusion. “Don’t be afraid”– there’s the command form, then it says “little flock” And as soon as it says ‘little flock’, it gives a completely different sense of the command. It’s “I know that you are vulnerable, I know that you feel defenseless and out of control in a very very difficult world.” “Please realize,” Jesus says, “that our God is a generous God who is not sitting far way while  his children are in distress. He’s the God who wants to give us the very kingdom itself.”

[…] There is an assumption that we are going to be afraid because there are perilous kinds of things– and there is one prominent question: When you are afraid, where will you turn? Will you immediately try to strategize to keep the fearful thing at bay, or will you turn to the Lord and simply offer some version of ‘Lord, help’?”

Indeed, one of the most comforting things we could ever know is that whether or not our fears come true, and whether or not we are right to be afraid, we have a Father who loves us, cares for us, and responds to our cries with his presence.  He calls us to call out to him with our fearful hearts. And what a comfort it is to know that our obedience to the instruction “Do not be afraid,” is not about keeping a stiff upper lip, but is simply our response as dear children to a Father’s loving invitation.

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Truths that have helped in my fight against anxiety

I have written before about my ongoing struggle with anxiety that I have had ever since I was young. Anxiety and worry manifest themselves in my life often in physical symptoms (stomachaches as a child, knots in my stomach, breaking out in itchy hives, pressure on my chest etc.) and are emotionally and mentally taxing. Ultimately though, they are usually rooted in what is going on in my heart on a spiritual and theological level. Anxiety does much not only to reveal my fears, but what I believe about myself, life and God.

Jeff has prayed often for me since before we were married for my anxiety- for the stomachaches, patterns of thought that jump to worst-case scenarios, and inexplicably violent nightmares. And I believe God is answering his prayers and prayers of friends who have come alongside of me and fought for me before the throne of grace. It is a constant battle, but how far I have come is a testimony of the goodness of God.

There have been some truths that have been on the forefront of my mind these last few months that have been helpful in fighting anxiety. Hopefully, they will be a God-graced reminder and help for others like me. Here they are:

1. Most importantly, the argument from the greater to the lesser.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32 ESV)

Much of my anxiety stems from the fact that, like C.S. Lewis wrote, “We’re not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” I wrote about the life-changing truth regarding that fear which God brought home to me two years ago here: The Sign of Jonah.The deep understanding of the love of God demonstrated at the cross for the sake of my redemption at great cost to himself grounds my trust that he will be good to me (even if I don’t feel like it is good) in all the smaller things that make up the rest of my life. This is what I wrote in April of 2011:

During the message, when exhorted to look to the cross, I remembered afresh the Father’s love for me in giving up his Son and Jesus’ love for me in coming to walk this earth, not holding onto his glory but becoming a servant to suffer and die for me. He did all this while I wanted nothing to do with him. He loves me, and I know it not just because the Bible says “God loves you” but because He demonstrated it. The love that he showed, stirs up trust in my heart- I know, like know, through the cross that his affection, intentions, and will toward me are good and loving. He is not just working towards his glory and Christlikeness in my own life, but the way he brings that about is also good and loving because that is who he is. I cannot look to the cross, and then think about God as some cold, distant being who plans my life in a mechanical and “well, it’ll end up good in the end!” way. He loves me at all times, thus I trust that the ends that he plans are not just “good” in some abstract sense, but even the means ordained by him flow out of his eternal, unchanging, everlasting love. That’s why I’m not afraid even though an easy life is not promised to me. That’s why I will trust him even though I know there will be times things don’t make sense in my eyes.

A related illustration that has stuck with me since I heard it a few months ago is one by John Piper that if someone gets you a million dollar present, he is not going to be standing at Walmart trying to decide between $3 and $4 wrapping paper. Christ is ours! Life eternal is ours through the precious blood of Christ! We do not need to think he will be uncaring, unthinking, and harsh about the details of our lives.

2. The argument from the lesser to the greater: Consider the ravens and the lilies!

24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!…27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! (Luke 12, ESV)

A few weeks ago, I was struggling with feeling like the promises of God in Scripture and his help for those in need seemed distant. My life is made up of such small things and the things I am anxious about, though big in my perspective, seem so small compared to the greater suffering, trials, and problems in the world. The promises held out in Scripture felt too huge for me- held out for those in persecution or in grave need because of their great love for God. And so I prayed, and God answered with Luke 12.

There are many truths in this passage that help in fighting anxiety (e.g. 8 reasons here). But the one that the Holy Spirit brought home was this: My life is small, short and fading- God seems in some ways “too big” for the details of my life. But God in his infinite wisdom and love has chosen to clothe flowers and feed sparrows. That means before the beginning of time, he has willed and purposed for each individual blade of grass on my lawn to grow and a means for each bird outside to eat. God is so big, so incomprehensibly powerful, that there is no small thing that escapes his sight and power. And if God has chosen to care for flowers and birds, and he says that I am more important than they, then he will care for me, his child.

3.  Not “what will happen to me”, but “what am I to do right now?”

My mind, if not brought under the rule of God, is constantly creating projections of the future which are almost always comprised of my worst fears. I have the uncanny ability to make a mental jump between Jeff being a bit late coming home and not picking up his cell phone to how I’m going to make a living as a widow. Looking back, these kinds of thought have passed through my head every day for as long as I can tell starting from when I was young being afraid every time my parents were out.  I have lately been asking God to help me rein in my thoughts and the most helpful thing for me has been to change the question that I am asking myself whenever I am anxious.

In Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes about a (ficional) demon writing to another newbie demon about how to deal with their “patient” (a person) against the “Enemy” (God). About anxiety, he writes (italics mine):

He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.
Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him-the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say “Thy will be done”, and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of.

Nervousness or fear is the body’s response to a situation that demands some kind of response, for example “fight or flight?” It is not necessarily a bad thing and at times, fear brings about a necessary action- like rushing to the sofa because my daughter is about to flip over the edge. In the same way, when we think about things that are potentially worrisome,  God doesn’t call us to just think happy thoughts but respond to them. Sometimes the response will mean taking tangible action, always we are to respond in prayer and thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6-7). But anxiety takes a situation, analyzes it as bad, and just keeps thinking “what will happen to me?” instead of “how am I called to respond right now?” Now, when I start feeling the familiar sense of worry coming on, I try to ask this question so that the alertness and nervousness at the situation are used in the ways that they were ordained to work in bringing me to deeper dependence on God and being an active agent in doing the will of God.

4. I will probably be an “anxious person” my whole life, but this struggle is God’s ordained means to grow my trust in him and be a witness to his grace.

Having my daughter has convinced me of the creativity of God in creating each person uniquely. I see her and I see other children and it’s amazing to see how even now you can see their personalities coming through. Even from when she was a few months old as we got to know her more, we started praying about things she will probably struggle with given her particular make up. My temperament has a lot to do with the particular struggles I have. This is not to be fatalistic, but it gives me comfort to know that, though I pray I will grow in fighting it, I will be prone to anxiety until I see Jesus and that God brings about each struggle for my good and his glory.

I have learned not to see knots in my stomach as a failure on my part, but opportunities to turn to trust in God. When my daughter was a newborn and when I was nursing, the hormones involved caused waves of dread to pass over me unrelated to things I was thinking about or doing. It helped to see each occurrence of this biologically caused dread as a chance to say to God, “I don’t know why this is happening and I don’t like it, but I trust you.” I am coming to see God’s sufficient grace in all this and my being prone to fear and worry as a potential tool in the hands of God as he teaches me to turn to him and trust in his loving kindness and steadfast faithfulness.

God is ever so patient as I fail to trust again and again. He has been faithful to give grace and teach me. And to those who have continually prayed with me through my anxieties, thank you. All I have written here and am still learning is an answer to your prayers.

Truth & Orthodoxy

I have seen his face

There is a story often attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson of a ship caught in a dreadful storm off a rocky coast. The hurricane winds, driving rain, and heaving waves threatened to drive the ship and its passengers into destruction. In the midst of the terror, one daring man pulled himself up the slippery stairs of the ship’s hold to the deck, fearful of what he’d see. The ship tossed steeply; creaking and cracking pierced the steady whoosh of the angry sea. The moonlight in the heavy rain did not allow much vision, but the sailor held fast and gazed across the deck to the wheel of the ship. There he saw the pilot at his post gripping the wheel strongly, and bit by bit steering the ship out to sea. The pilot spotted the terrified spy and gave him a smirk. Impressed, the passenger returned to the hold and sounded the news: “I have seen the face of the pilot, and he smiled at me. All is well.”

Gospel Wakefulness, Jared Wilson p. 161 (at least that’s what it says on my Kindle App)
Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Anxiety Wants To Be God

Anxiety is one of my biggest struggles.

I didn’t used to think so, but reflecting back in my life, fear and anxiety have been constant themes. Most of the time, they manifest in physical symptoms. I used to get stomachaches all the time when I was in elementary school (usually Sunday nights before the school week started)- I learned in a psych class in college that stomach aches are a sign of anxiety in children. Since high school, I’ve broken out in hives in response to anxiety that I may or may not know that I have. I had an almost painful feeling of heaviness on my chest and shoulders for almost a year in LA and when I was struggling with the major decision about whether or not to stay, for weeks I’d wake up in the middle of the night with hives all over. Now, since around my first midterms or finals week at Westminster 2 years ago, my stomach has gotten into the habit of forming a tight knot whenever I’m anxious. It may be something big, or I may just be rushing to finish cooking dinner on time, and this knot will grab my stomach and not let go until I stop doing whatever I’m doing.

Since getting married, there’s been more for me to be anxious about. First, there’s all that Jeff has to do. He’s much busier than I am during this season of life, and he doesn’t get anxious like me, so I get anxious for him. There’s also constantly more to think about in terms of what’s next in life. There’s always something bad that can happen or something we hope for that may not happen.

Remembering to praise God or just reflecting that he is in control usually helps, but rather than stop and meditate on the truth, I normally try to plug through and finish whatever I’m doing, with the knot in my stomach intensifying as I go. I’m asking God to get to the root of these anxious thoughts. I know vaguely that they are founded upon what I value, possible idolatry, lack of trust in God’s character, superstitious fear, and not taking time to just sit and remember God.

I read a quote a few days ago that convicted me from Paul Miller’s A Praying Life (Good book! I recommend it!)

Anxiety wants to be God but lacks God’s wisdom, power, or knowledge. A godlike stance without godlike character and ability is pure tension. Because anxiety is self on its own, it tries to get control. It is unable to relax in the face of chaos. Once one problem is solved, the next in line steps up. The new one looms so large, we forget the last deliverance.

A godlike stance without God’s character and ability. So true. My anxiety believes that I need to possess the wisdom, power, and knowledge of God in order to rest. If I just knew what was going to happen, then I wouldn’t be anxious. If I could make something happen or prevent something from happening, then I wouldn’t be scared. If I had all the wisdom in the world, then I could make the best choice and not be worried about what to do. I need this wisdom, power and knowledge to shape things my way, the best way! But these are lies. I need to remember that God is God, that I’m not, and that that’s how it is supposed to be. That as a creature, I’m in constant need of my Creator and that I don’t have to live autonomously and independent from him, but am made to be completely dependent upon his wisdom, power, and knowledge. All things are to work together for his glory, not my desires and comfort. I need to trust in not only his power and wisdom, but his love and goodness. This eternal wisdom, power, goodness, sovereignty and loving care is evident in him caring for birds, lilies, and grass of the field and made manifest most evidently in the cross of Jesus Christ.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

It is astonishing that I would entrust my eternal destination and soul to God, and still be afraid about life here which will pass by like the blink-of-an-eye. God has done so much, and my faith is still so weak. Jesus, Jesus, Precious Jesus, oh for grace to trust him more.