Monday, December 14, 2020

Christmas Hope for Anxious Hearts

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him because He cares for you." (1 Peter 4:6-7) This is one of my favorite verses even though I realize it often gets misused to shame anxious hearted people. With  Holidays and Covid 19 looming in the background anxiety has increased. So, today I am revisiting the topic of anxiety, hoping to speak encouragement into to anxious hearts. 

As I have shared in the past, a few years ago we were given a small maltipoo from our kids who moved oversees. Harley came as is a well trained dog, who believes she's human. She was pretty anxious when she was left her with us. But at the time I had a viral infection that caused extreme fatigue for about a year and she spent the year cuddling with me. As a result she attached to me, my husband, and a son who was staying with us at the time. Then movers came and once again she watched stuff get packed and carried out the door and another person disappeared from her life as our son moved away. She once again grew anxious and wants to be in someone's lap 24/7.

When I put her down to clean house, she follows me from room to room and there are times I sit down with her and feel her trembling, which is what she does when she realizes we are about to leave the house without her. Her anxiety grieves my heart because she gets so anxious anticipating a possible abandonment that  she  can't enjoy the great amount of time she spends on my lap. In watching her, I realized I have had a lot in common with her. I spent many years living with the same type of anticipatory anxiety that prevented me from fully enjoying both life and my relationship with God. 

Anxiety is an experience common to all humans. This is especially true this holiday season with Covid 19 numbers rising. Rising numbers has caused lockdowns, which has means we are having to isolate more, increasing loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Anxiety is also rising because people are losing jobs, businesses, and homes right before the holidays. There is anxiety for those who are in the workforce who know they might be exposed to Covid and carry it home, especially those who work in the medical field. 

There is also anxiety that comes with a never ending election riddled with so many hate-filled words being spewed everywhere and the threat of violence that is residing just underneath the surface, looking for any reason to erupt. There is anxiety for those who have family members working in law enforcement who know spouses, parents or grandparents on the force may be targeted by violence for wearing the uniform.  
   
There is also anxiety that comes from wanting to have perfect Christmases, give perfect gifts, and respond perfectly to the gifts we are given. There is anxiety in anticipating family dysfunction and family drama that can erupt when people with unresolved baggage come together. This is especially true this year when many families are split politically. We also may experience anxiety because we want our Christmases to make up for the hard year we have all had. 

For believers, anxiety lends to toxic shame as we have come to believe we aren't supposed to ever experience anxiousness. Yet, we do experience anxiety even though we may try to either deny or hide it. When we do that we choose to live a lie instead of honestly acknowledging the hard that comes from living in a fallen world. 

The reasons we, as believers, experience anxiety are many. First, we live in a fallen world and may have experienced painful or traumatic events. A normal healthy response to early trauma does include anxiety. Think of a child who experiences childhood trauma at a young age who doesn't have the mental or emotional capacity to process it. Their body responds as it is designed to respond. That means surging chemicals floods them so they will flee, freeze, fight, or play dead to stay safe. Because they are too young to know how to use effectively use that energy, the anxiety of the experience gets imprinted in such a way that it recurs when it gets triggered by things the mind remembers  subconsciously--a smell, a sound, a season of the year, holiday lights, etc. As they experience triggers, anxiety rises of its own accord. 

There is also anxiety provoking things going on in the here and now. I think of those diagnosed with cancer. If we put ourselves in their shoes, we realize they face mortality daily in ways most of us don't. They face difficult decisions about therapies that can potentially poison their bodies as they kill the cancer. They also face soaring medical bills and do battle with insurance companies who refuse to pay. Anxiety can also come from not being sure one can tolerate chemo and wondering if their faith will be strong enough to endure the illness and its painful treatments. It comes from wondering if they will suffer well and continue to be a light or be able to sense God and His love, knowing full well that He can heal, but may choose not to. 

There is compounded anxiety when families deal with sick children during holidays. I follow the posts of mom's whose children were born with heart defects. A little girl named Charlie was born with half a heart and has gone through several open heart surgeries. The road they travel is long and death will always be a very real possibility. They walk closely with God and the song they sing over her continually declares yes to God's will and yes to His ways. But there is anxiety to be reckoned with when Charlie faces life threatening bumps in the journey and fights to survive with half a heart that loves big. 

The other child is sweet Caleb who has already been given a new heart. But the new heart didn't stop the anxiety for his parents when drugs preventing rejection left his immune system compromised and vulnerable to both blood and eye cancers with which he's battled brave. I know his sweet mama personally and am a part of her tribe. I know she is experiencing even more anxiety this year with Covid numbers rising. She makes healthy choices for her child and trusts God in ways I can't even imagine. 

There is a lot of anxiety felt in families who have someone struggling with addictions, which can raise their ugly heads in holidays. Each wonders what they will face during the holidays and walk on eggshells, fearful they will say or do something that will cause a relapse...and the drinking, the drug use, or visits to porn sites will start up, leaving the house in chaos as wounding behaviors follow in the aftermath. There is also anxiety because holiday stress can trigger addicts to drink, snort, shoot up, or return to the darkness of his or her infidelity through internet porn--the fixes that leave a family open to dark spiritual influences that can pass to future generations.

There is anxiety in families in which mental illness dwells. Will this be the holiday the depression gives way to suicide? Will mom, dad, or a sibling be calm and happy, agitated and angry, depressed and unavailable, or on a mania high or a catatonic slow state?  Will the fear instilled by the paranoid come to fruition? All the while the children are trying to figure out if there is something they did to cause the behaviors and actions of those they love or if there is something they can do to bring stability to the instability--a responsibility way to big for such little shoulders, birthing a debilitating storm of anxiety in a child's soul.  

There is anxiety in homes where marriages are broken as family members wonder if the next mistake made, the next thoughtless word spoken, the next problem experienced with the kids, the next financial setback might be the final trigger that ends the marriage, fracturing a family into two hurting pieces. Anxiety also comes to the children overhearing arguments and assuming responsibility to smooth things over so neither mom or dad leave. There is anxiety in kids whose families have already split as they travel between homes, hoping they won't be the source of conflict and disscomfort.

There is anxiety caused by core beliefs developed at an early age--beliefs that impact thoughts, actions, reactions, and feelings. Some of my anxiety-inducing core beliefs were: "I am responsible for everyone's happiness." "My being loved depends on me being a perfect size, a perfect wife, a perfect mom, and a perfect believer." "My value and worth as a person comes from what I do." During holidays, my anxiety is tied to wanting to find the perfect present for everyone and wanting to respond perfectly to every gift received, which is hard for an emotionally-reserved introvert. That perfectionism is complicated because having the perfect marriage, perfect family, and perfect holidays depends not just on me being perfect (and I am not), but on others being perfect (and they are not). I've no right to project perfectionism and am simply called to love well, to extend grace, and to lovingly speak truth. 

Over the last few years I've learned things that have calmed my anxious heart. First, I learned our God doesn't demand perfection. He desires us to be humble and to express anxious thoughts to safe, nonjudgmental friends. I am graced with such friends who listen well and friends who remind me they hear me and see me and their words remind me that my heavenly Father sees me as well. Sometimes my friends share truth about God's goodness, bigness, and graciousness in non-shaming ways, but most often they just listen, knowing I simply need to bring it to the light. Sometimes they offer to pray with me and give me the opportunity to cast my cares on God, because He cares for me.  

Secondly, I learned to choose wisely with whom I share my struggle. This was a hard lesson learned when I shared with people who were quick to judge and admonish me rather than listen and encourage. I have learned to share only with those who understand God's love and grace and who are more about transparency than appearances. They are the ones whose gentle encouragement reminds me to continue believing our God is bigger than Covid, conflicted elections, and family dysfunction.

The third lesson I've learned is when I feel panicked and anxious I can talk freely to God about it because He isn't waiting to strike me with lighting because of a feeling I am experiencing. He's always  inviting me to remember who He is and who I am in Him. Remembering God's character, strength, love, and grace helps me stay calm today just as it did through an accident our daughter, her husband, and infant son were in, an ATV accident our youngest had that caused life-threatening injuries, and the birth of a granddaughter born three months too soon, and a such a severe break in my ankle that the doctors said, "If you walk again..." 

The fourth lesson I learned was that I could dissolve or manage anxiety that was caused or increased by lies I believed. I learned the lies from others who were misguided, from misinterpreting things I saw, and from The Enemy who seeks to squash faith by whispering lies in our ears. His lies made me feel that I was both too much and not enough. He lies stirred anxiety when he whispered half truths that stirred up doubt about God, His character, His love, His goodness, and His faithfulness. My anxiety decreases when I confront lies and boldly declare truth. 

The Enemy wants us to forget we are chosen, accepted, redeemed, beloved children who have been bought with the blood of God's own Son and sealed us into His family by His own Spirit. Satan wants us to believe our circumstances prove we're bad, forgotten, unseen, or abandoned by the God who calls us His own. The Enemy shames us because shame causes us to hide or deny our reality instead of casting it on God through prayer and thanksgiving. The Enemy uses shame to stir a form of pride that drives us to look "all together" while quaking at our core so we won't experience the care and comfort of the God who gives it freely. The Enemy also uses shame to isolate us because he knows when we engage with others, we get out of our own heads and see the lies for what they are. The Enemy deceives so we will feel responsible for things of which we have no control--things like others' feelings, attitudes, choices, beliefs. and actions. He prompts us with the should of shame, the seduction of power, and reminder of sin already confessed.

So, why do I write of all this in a advent post? I write it because this holiday is a Holy Holiday  commemorating the birth of our Savior--the God-man who took on flesh to die as a payment for sin, the birth of our Shepherd who loves and seeks His sheep, the birth of our King who had made us joint Heirs with Him. The Enemy wants us to take our eyes off Jesus and put it on anxiety-provoking things like the creation of the perfect Christmas, Covid, and political unrest. Let's not buy into the lies he tells so we can rest in God-given peace and joy. May our holiday goals be connection, loving well, acceptance of our perfectly imperfect selves, sweet conversations, and simple gifts that remind us of Jesus. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Promised One

When I was a child, Christmas felt magical to me because people seemed to be friendlier and kinder to each other during the Christmas season. When they passed each other in the store or saw each other at church, they took time out of busy schedules to greet one another and to engage in conversations. And, wen they parted they wished each other, "Merry Christmas!" It also seemed magical because we had extended family who visited and had traditional holiday meals laid out on elegantly decorated tables. I remember the peace of gazing at the Christmas tree lights as I sipped cocoa in front of a fireplace and the joy of listening to the garbled sounds of adults talking as I drifted off to sleep, thankful more of the people I loved were under our roof.

When I began attending church, Christmas took on a more important meaning to me and the feeling of it being magical was replaced by a feeling of deep awe that continued to grow year after year. I used to think the Christmas story began in the gospels. But, I have since come to understand the story didn't began with an angel visiting Mary or with angels singing to shepherds in the fields or the Shekinah Glory in the east--it began in the garden of Eden--a garden God had planted for the people He created and breathed life into. It began with something so sinister we don't like to include it in our sanitized versions of the Christmas story. But, we must. For without the bad we can't grasp the depth of the the good and of the loving kindness of our God. Nor, can we grasp the significance of His pursuit of us and the Promised One He has given. 

The story began on a warm perfect day with temptation laid out by a slithering serpent and the sound of his smooth voice hissing lies and half truths to God's people. It continued with Eve forgetting she were created to be God's image bearer became dissatisfied with her life for the very first time. It continued as she began to see God's command not to eat one particular fruit as a deprivation rather than the protection it was. Her dissatisfaction grew as her desire for the God-forbidden fruit became inflamed by the feeling of deprivation and grew into a belief that she deserved more. It continued when she eyed the fruit and reached for it and smelled its sweetness and took a bite, It continued as she shared of her sin with her man who was ever so silently standing by her side as she engaged in the conversation with a hissing serpent. It continued with the overwhelming shame that grew in their hearts as the reality of what they had done sank in. It continued when their futile attempts to cover their shame with clothes of fig leaves that proved inadequate. It continued with their hiding from the Creator when they heard Him approaching. It continued when for the first time ever He had to call for them.

But there was no place big enough to hide them and their shame from the God who is omniscient. Little did they understand that God loved big enough to relentlessly pursue them even in the aftermath of what they had done. He met them where they were at and He clothed them in animal skins that He, Himself, sacrificed--a sacrifice that was a physical picture of His loving Promise of One who would one day take God's wrath for sin committed, who would overcome the death they were dying, and who would destroy the enemy seeking to destroy them.

Since that dark day in the Garden, we who were meant to behold God and fellowship with Him and reflect His glory have been sinning and forsaking the Creator just as Adam and Eve did. As a result, we, too, are shrouded in debilitating shame and hiding from the Creator and from each other. We may not hide behind leaves and bushes, but we hide behind masks that attempt to portray false selves that are way better than we really are. We hide behind shameful behavior like name calling, addictions,  cursing,  deception, abandonment, and abuse. We hide behind vows of not needing the love, approval, and acceptance of our God or other people. But the masks, the  shameful behavior, and the vows we make--they don't dissolve shame that flourishes in hiding.

The solution of shame resides in our persistently pursuing God who transform shame with the blood of the Promised One. The Promised One being Jesus who was born shamefully to an unwed mother, who lived in the shameful region of Nazareth, who shamefully walked with women, who shamefully blessed children, who shamefully touched lepers, who shamefully cast out demons, who shamefully forgave adulterers, and who shamefully dined with sinners, prostitutes, Samaritans, and tax collectors. The Son fulfilled the Promise when He was shamefully sold for the price of a slave, was shamefully arrested, was shamefully insulted by the crowd calling for His death, shamefully flogged, shamefully face-slapped and beard plucked, shamefully stripped and crowned with earth-cursed thorns, shamefully nailed to a cross to die a criminal's death, shamefully faced His Father's wrath, and shamefully placed in a borrowed tomb.

We often fail to see, He chose to lay down His life, not just as a payment for sin, but because He despised the shame that's tendrils have been suffocating the life out of us ever since Eden. I wish we could understand that He has never despised us; He has despised the shame with which we've been plagued since the fall. Diane Langberg so eloquently pointed out in her book, Suffering and the Heart of God, He did not let the shame people and His circumstance heaped upon Him define Him, diminish Him, or destroy His work and His purpose--He looked it fully in the face as His Father turned away so that He could transform our shame into glory.

As we remember the Baby born to a young virgin, laid in a manger, worshiped by shepherds, and visited by the Magi, may we never lose sight  that the Promised One humbled Himself, taking on the form of man, being obedient to death, was the very One who defeated sin and death so we could behold Him and have our shame transformed into glory as it says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, "We all, with unveiled faces, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory."

The Christmas Story without the backdrop of the Garden looses its ability to show the true story God has penned--a story that is both messy and beautiful--messy because it includes our sin and shame and our failure to love and obey God and beautiful because it includes our loving God radically pursing fallen creatures, and a promise that was fulfilled in the Promised One. The Christmas Story without the Garden fails to remind us of the glory of which our sin stripped us. The Christmas Story without the Garden fails to remind us that by faith in Christ we have been provided a way to enter His presence, which is the very place we need to be to have shame transformed into glory.

Introduction

Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!