More Antidote for Anxiety

(Continuation of my last post…)

Take delight in the Lord. Commit your way to the Lord.

It seems to me that these two go hand in hand. What might God delight in? What does God desire? The prophet Hosea says that God desires us to know him and to love him with a steadfast love.

How do we commit to knowing and loving God? Practically speaking, we spend time with those we love. How much time are we willing to spend with the Lord? I mean, really? What does that time look like? Is it ten minutes of looking at a devotional reading while the tasks of the day run through our mind? Is ten distracted minutes enough for a signficant relationship to thrive?

It takes more effort to engage with the Lord, and it requires a commitment to prayerfully reading the Bible regularly…as in every day.

Just a word of caution here… For a while, I used an app on my phone for my daily prayer. The app promised to make it easier to follow the Daily Office (my preferred reading plan), offering each day’s readings all in one place at the touch of a single button. But I found that the pings and dings of incoming texts, emails, and voicemails distracted me mercilessly. And then I would think of something I needed to add to my to-do list for the day, which prompted me to open my calendar to type in a reminder, which led to a whole bunch of other distractions. I’ve since gone back to my printed Bible!

And speaking of reading the Bible…while that’s certainly a good and necessary thing to do, is that all we need to do? Just because I read a book about someone, it doesn’t mean I really know them. Of course, the Bible is not just any book. It is unique in that it is the living word of God—the Holy Spirit enlivens each word for us as we allow Him to. And that’s just the point. Reading or studying for knowledge is one thing, and it’s what we are trained to do from the time we learn to read. But the intimacy of actually knowing God comes from meditating on his word, contemplating its meaning for our life and for our relationship with the One whose love for us is complete.

I’m certain that this sort of communion with God is what David is speaking of in Psalm 37 when he suggests that we delight ourselves in the Lord. And it will most certainly lead to another of his antidotes for anxiety, which will be the subject of my next post.

In the meantime, spend some time with God pondering these two questions:

  • Lord, how would you have me delight in you today?
  • Lord, practically speaking, what does it look like for me to commit my way to you today?

Antidote for Anxiety

When I’m frustrated and angry over some injustice, Psalm 37 is my go-to Psalm. It deals with the wicked and the unrighteous, the prosperity they enjoy in this life and the consequence of their evil doings when they have to face God. Psalm 37 reminds me that God will vindicate the righteous in due time. But as I prepared recently to preach from this Psalm, I found that–for me, anyway–the real treasure is found in the first eleven verses as David deals with an issue that most of us struggle with fairly regularly.

Anxious worry–which David refers to as “fretting”–is something I come by honestly. My mom was an anxious worrier, and her mother before her. There is much in our culture and in our world to provoke anxiety. News media focus on the negative, sensationalizing every terrorist plot, every tragedy, anything having to do with health issues, and so on. Our modern technology which promised us a more carefree life has instead enslaved us. (Just notice the anxiety you feel when you misplace your mobile device!) And all too often the doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies we trust to take care of us when we are sick have proven to be more concerned about the bottom line of their financial statements than curing our health problem.

(I could go on, but I prefer to be more of a “glass is half-full rather than half-empty” kind of woman!)

Here’s where those first eleven verses of Psalm 37 come in. King David penned this Psalm in his old age, after he’d lived long and accumulated much wisdom. The first two words are, “Fret not.” He says it twice more in the following eight verses, which should catch our attention. Now granted, he is saying this in reference to fretting over the godless who are prospering, but I think it’s applicable to most any kind of anxiety we experience.

David goes on to offer some very good, very wise advice…

  • Trust in the Lord and do good
  • Take delight in the Lord
  • Commit your way to the Lord
  • Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him
  • Refrain from anger and turn from wrath

Trust in the Lord and do good.

Only when we trust in the Lord are we truly free to do good. When I fret over my possessions or achievements, comparing myself to others and coming up wanting, I invariably struggle to do good. Instead, I become self-referenced and bogged down in a scarcity mentality, that state of mind that says we are “never enough” or that we never have enough–whether that is time, sleep, energy, material possessions, significance, recognition, or…well, you fill in the blank. Scarcity mentality essentially says that I don’t trust that God has provided what I truly need and that he will continue to do so. Doing good, then, becomes a threat to my own security, for in doing good to and for others, I run the risk of not having enough for myself.

Trusting in the Lord and doing good leaves less time and energy for fretting. We have less inclination to give in to anxious worry because we aren’t thinking about what we lack, but what we can give.

I invite you to ponder that a bit to see if there is any truth in it for you. I’ll speak to the rest of David’s advice in my next post…

 

 

Beyond Words

While on a road trip last week I listened to a few podcasts by Ruth Haley Barton from her Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership series. In one of them she talked about communing with God, as opposed to communicating with God. It’s easy to settle for communicating with God–pouring out my heart, submitting my list of requests, and then moving on with my life without waiting for or being attentive to God’s response.  What might it look like to really commune with God…?

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day…     -Genesis 3:8

Can you imagine walking in the garden with God in the cool of the day?

A few years ago as I was “communicating” with God, I asked him to help me learn to listen. I knew well my tendency during a conversation to be thinking about what I wanted to say rather than truly listening to what the other person was sharing. It’s rude and dismissive, shutting down the opportunity for vulnerability and meaningful conversation. My communication with God was not much different. I was convicted of my need to change, but also of my powerlessness to do it without some divine intervention! So I asked for help…then went on with my life…which happened to include becoming a spiritual director. Much of the coursework for spiritual direction revolves around listening, so for two years I read book after book and had plenty of opportunities to practice active listening. Real change, however, felt pretty elusive.

But as I’ve reflected on that podcast differentiating between communing and communication, I realize that I more often commune with God these days than ever before. It comes at the strangest times…

  • as I watch the critters in our back yard–a chipmunk, squirrels, and a bevy of birds–all gathered together on and under the birdfeeders to gather nuts and seeds
  • as I meander down to the garden to harvest peas or lettuce and am surprised to see another plant has burst its pod and pushed its way up through the dirt, opening itself to the sun
  • as I sit in my prayer garden in the early morning quiet and simply listen to the sounds around me–all sorts of birdsong, the splashing of a robin taking her bath, squirrels rustling in the bushes, the buzz of bees as they pollinate my flowers
  • as I marvel at the fireflies that light up the back yard as the sun goes down, to the accompaniment of a mourning dove’s soft coo

…and my heart feels so full of wonder that the God of the universe has created such beauty, and has given me eyes to see and ears to hear. And suddenly I’m intensely aware of his gentle, loving presence all around me and rising up within me all at the same time. That’s the moment when I know I’ve finally found my way from communication to communion, from talking at God to intimacy with God…when Love is so powerful that words are no longer necessary.

My prayer for you today is that you will slow down and create time and space to set aside communication in favor of communion with our Creator God, and in so doing you would know the intimacy of that Love which is deeper than words.

 

Listen, Lord

O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body bent
Before Thy throne of grace.
Bow our hearts beneath our knees
And our knees in the lonesome valley.
We come this morning—
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord—open up a new window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.
-James Weldon Johnson

The imagery in this poem is rich… What resonates within your soul this morning?

…the humble posture of prayer before God’s throne?
…the lonesome valley?
…the empty pitcher?
…the full fountain?

Imagine God opening his window and leaning far out, listening to every word of your prayer, whether it is full of thanksgiving or lament, anticipation or dread, confidence or fear…He listens intently, as though he has all the time in the world and you are the only person in the universe…because he does and, in this moment, you are…

Speak, child, for your Father is listening.

From discipline to practice to rhythm

Several years ago Richard Foster wrote a book titled Celebration of Discipline. It’s really a classic when it comes to Christian discipleship and I’ve often used it as a resource not only for my own growth, but when teaching and training others. But a few years ago I became aware of resistance to that word “discipline” as I work with younger generations. The word feels stern and slightly oppressive in this milieu, more like punishment than something desirable or helpful, and definitely not cause for celebration!

While it has seemingly developed a negative connotation for many, discipline really is not bad word. In fact, scripture has much good to say about the necessity of discipline for our healthy growth and development. Discipline doled out in excessively punitive measure is a reason for the word’s bad rep and, as we are often inclined to do, the good is thrown out with the bad as we delete the word from our vocabulary!

Spiritual disciplines, however, are not intended to be punitive. They are, and always will be, necessary for the Christian who desires spiritual maturity. Daily Bible reading, prayer, fasting, service, worship, and so on are essential nutrients for growing up into Christlikeness, which is God’s ultimate purpose for us (Romans 8:29). In the beginning of our faith journey, however, it can require a fair amount of effort to engage in these activities–hence the reference to “disciplines.” We must discipline ourselves to adopt these essential rituals.

After some time of consistent effort, however, we find that the disciplines have become practices. The word “practices” doesn’t carry the weight that “disciplines” does, and so we probably don’t think of these acts as quite so laborious.. While they may no longer require as self-discipline as they originally did, intentionality is still key to taking them to the next level: sacred rhythms.

Rhythm: a strong, regular, repeated pattern. What began as a discipline requiring much effort and intentionality eventually becomes a practice in which we more easily engage, then ultimately it becomes a rhythm that is so strong in our life of faith that is sacred–time and attention set apart regularly and repeatedly for the service and worship of God. We know its become a sacred rhythm when we can’t imagine going a day, week, month, or year without it…when we make sure it’s on our calendar (e.g., a day of silence and solitude or an annual retreat) or when it marks the time of day for us (e.g., praying the hours).

Can you identify disciplines in which you have engaged that no longer require heroic effort? Do they feel more like practices than disciplines? And are there practices that have become so essential to your spiritual maturation that you can’t imagine life without them? Those sacred rhythms are definitely worthy of celebration!

If you want to learn more about spiritual disciplines, practices, and/or sacred rhythms, here are three excellent resources

 

Cross-carrying

 Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  -Mark 8:34

Lately I’ve been pondering cross-carrying. On the one hand, that concept is not a familiar one within our culture. On the other hand, Jesus said that I need to take up my cross if I am to follow him. So it begs the question, What kind of cross am I to carry? What’s it for?

There are so many crosses to choose from: duty, obligation, penance, martyrdom, suffering, longing, care-taking, shame…and the list goes on and on. But I’m more and more convinced that the only cross I need to carry is the cross to which I nail my false self.

False self…that persona I’ve so carefully constructed over the years, the one I’ve created in response to the expectations of the world I live in–culture, community, workplace, church, friends, family. It’s the mask I wear in hopes that you approve, like, and accept me. It is manipulative and self-protective in that it seeks to control my environment so that my status quo is not disturbed or disrupted.

While I might choose to carry other kinds of crosses, the cross God chooses for me to carry is the one to which I nail my false self.

In his book, The Deeper Journey, Dr. Robert Mulholland makes this distinction:

There are two fundamental ways of being human in the world: trusting in our human resources and abilities or a radical trust in God…You might describe these two ways of being in the world as the ‘false self’ and the ‘true self.’

Dr. Mulholland goes on to point out that when Jesus says we should deny ourselves, he’s not talking about giving up chocolate for Lent. “He is calling for the abandonment of our entire, pervasive, deeply entrenched matrix of self-referenced being.”

Jesus is calling for me to nail that false self–the one that’s more about shame than grace–to the cross. It’s not a once and done deal, however. It’s not that easy! The false self is shed in layers, one after another, as I go through life. That’s why I need to carry that cross…the one that’s just waiting for the next abandoned layer of my false self.

What takes the place of my false self, though? What’s my identity as this false self is being stripped away? The Apostle Paul suggests that I am to put on Christ’s identity…

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  -2 Cor. 5:17

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  -Rom. 13:14

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  – Col. 3:1-3

Most days Christ’s identity feels too big, but that’s OK. I trust that God is growing me into it as I obediently and gratefully carry my cross.

 

For or Against?

 “Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”  -Luke 9:49-50

How often have I looked at someone who is not demonstrably accepting or approving of me and assumed they were against me? Nothing specific has been said or done to indicate any animosity towards me, and yet I am suspicious and wary.

Case in point: my church previously worshipped in an urban setting. This particular area is on the cusp of one of the more dangerous neighborhoods of the city and so we were advised to excercise caution. Occasionally I was the first person to arrive at church early Sunday morning and, if I met anyone on the street as I approached our building, I immediately felt distrustful and apprehensive, especially if they did not smile or nod a greeting. While there is a case to be made for caution, my subconscious response ran deeper than that. I assumed they were “against” me. Why? I was not born with that instinct. However, I grew up with a fearful parent whose default response to a stranger was distrust. My apprehension was something I learned.

Jesus teaches a different posture. Jesus says that if someone isn’t against me, I should assume they are for me. That’s a big paradigm shift! As I have worked to un-learn what I was taught, I remind myself when encountering a stranger that I don’t need to lower my head and avoid eye contact, assuming they are “against” me. Rather, I choose to believe that they are for me (or at the very least neutral, which they most likely are!), greeting them with a smile and perhaps a kind word. In the process, I pray that they will know that I am “for” them, too…and in the process maybe our little corner of the world will become a gentler and more gracious place.

Do you subconsciously assume people are “for” or “against” you? What’s your natural instinct? Does it align with your behavior? Is it time for a paradigm shift?

Before I see someone as a problem, may I see him or her as a human being.  –Prayer: Forty Days of Practice, by Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson.