One More Antidote for Anxiety

(Continuation on reflections from Psalm 37:1-11. The first two posts are here and here.)

As we’ve heard David’s exhortation to “fret not” and pondered his advice for avoiding anxiety, I’ve saved the best (IMHO) for last! It’s this…

Be still before the Lord. Wait patiently for him.

To meditate on God’s word, contemplating what it means to me in my particular circumstances, requires that I sit still and quiet before God, waiting patiently for him to reveal to me more of himself. That’s not at all easy in the fast-paced world in which we live. We are continually encouraged to do more and do it faster, to fill up every minute of every day with something that the world considers productive. There are several problems with that, not the least of which is that what is productive in the world’s eyes is often in direct opposition to God’s plan and purpose! God deeply desires our love and our attention. The enemy of our souls provides plenty of distractions, cultural busyness and the demand for productivity topping the list.

This past year has brought home the truth that being still before the Lord and waiting patiently for him is non-negotiable in my life, and I would daresay in the life of anyone who wants to follow Christ. I have lived the past four years going from one demanding season to another, juggling it all with as much grace as I could muster. However, at the end of last year, all the demands had been met and suddenly I was left with little to juggle! After four years of being driven and stressed with little time to process what I was experiencing, I found myself frustrated and worn out, even while my soul was incessantly restless. That’s when I discovered this great treasure in Psalm 37:7.

My habit for the past couple of decades has been to spend time with the Lord each morning. However, this time was not necessarily spent sitting quietly and waiting patiently. It was more often spent fulfilling the obligatory Bible reading so that I could check the box on my reading plan, while rehearsing the day’s agenda in the background of my mind and asking God to bless it. There wasn’t much time for listening…mostly it was knowledge acquisition and petitioning. So the truth of verse 7 required some life-changing choices.

For me, this has looked like changing how I live out each day…simpler. Not simpler as in doing less, but simpler as in doing what has meaning and purpose to me, and doing it at a reasonable pace.

  • My day still begins with morning prayer, but I now use a guide that offers a few verses of scripture, rather than chapters. I wait patiently for the Holy Spirit to illumine a few words and then sit with them–and Him–in the quiet.
  • I limit how many appointments I schedule in a day rather than filling every available hour, which leaves space for God to speak into my day as it unfolds.
  • I spend all the time I can outdoors, where I most easily experience God through contemplating his glory and imagination revealed through his creation.
  • I planted a vegetable garden this year—not because it’s the cool thing to do or because I want to make some sort of statement about organic food. I did it because I wanted to see what it would be like to sow seed and wait for God to grow it into something we can eat!
  • I bought a good camera and took a class in basic photography. It is much more challenging than snapping pictures with my phone! But it encourages me to literally see the world through a different lens.

I pray more than I ever have before. Not a to-do-list- for-God kind of praying, but an ongoing conversation about how good he is and how much more I want to know him so that I can love him more fully.

Am I fret-free? Of course not! I still have moments of anxiety. But when I’m tempted to fret, I find it helpful to consider David’s advice, to focus on

  • trusting in the Lord and doing good,
  • delighting in the Lord as I commit my way to him,
  • and being still before the Lord as I wait patiently for him.

Charles Spurgeon once said that faith cures fretting. What changes do you need to make in your everyday life to build a faith that becomes your antidote for anxiety?

 

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.

Monday Morning Second Thoughts

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday according to our liturgical calendar and I had the privilege of providing the sermon.  I love the John 10 passage in which Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. He speaks of how he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. He says his sheep listen to his voice, trusting him enough to follow where he leads. Great stuff for a sermon on listening for the voice of God through prayer, which is one of my favorite subjects!

Our prayer team has had a fruitful year thus far. We have had an often urgent, ongoing medical crisis in one of our families that we’ve been praying for since February. We have rejoiced when God has answered some of our specific requests; we have persevered when he hasn’t. Yesterday seemed like the perfect opportunity to share with the parish what God has been doing as the team has prayed, and we wanted to give him praise and honor and glory as we shared the highlights of our prayers this year. We shared the wonderful ways God has answered our prayers for wisdom, for healing, for a much-needed car, for a new home, and then we wound it up with Psalm 100, a prayer of thanksgiving. I thought we did well!

But I woke up this morning feeling burdened by what we didn’t share. As I re-lived that testimony time yesterday, I saw the faces of the people whose prayers had not been answered in the way they wanted–the people who have not been healed, the job that has not been provided, the one who struggles to know the love of God. What about those prayers? We didn’t give God glory for those answers, did we?

As I wrestle with these questions, I sense the Holy Spirit gently reminding me that I carefully prepared that sermon, that I sensed his direction to remind people that the Good Shepherd knows and cares for his sheep, that he never abandons those who are in his charge, and that we can faithfully follow him, trusting in his goodness. The team’s intention was to share the blessing we have experienced as we have prayed together, and to give glory to God for the ways we can see he has answered. Our motives and intentions were not wrong or bad.

Wait…did you catch that? “…the ways we can see he has answered…” To say that God doesn’t answer a prayer is a lie. He always answers. What’s more, he always answers in the way that brings about the greatest good for everyone involved, some of whom we may not even know. It’s not unusual for it to take years before we can see how God answered. Sometimes we can’t see his answer until we step into his presence at the end of our earthly life.

We see this quite clearly in the life of Jesus. He didn’t always get what he asked for. Jesus prayed first that the cup would pass from him. It took him three attempts before he could finally and whole-heartedly pray, “Not my will, but your will be done, Father,” and then to step out in faithful obedience. (Matthew 26:36-45)

There is a holy mystery in suffering. We don’t want it, we don’t like it, but we can’t avoid it. Here’s the good news: We can trust that God will indeed work good out of it in his time and in his perfect way. We can trust that scripture is right and true when it says that there will be no more mourning or tears when the Kingdom comes in its fullness. We have this hope, this blessed assurance in Christ.

The day will come when we won’t second-guess anything we’ve said or done, when our best intentions will be perfect. In the meantime, my prayer is that God will redeem my clumsy attempts at sharing his perfect love, his goodness and his faithfulness to all, especially to those who are suffering. I know that prayer will be answered!

If you are struggling today with the disappointment of seemingly unanswered prayers, my prayer for you is that you sense the comfort, care, and protection of the Good Shepherd who is devoted to you and will meet your every need for understanding in the fullness of his time. Until then, may you trust in his ultimate goodness. Amen and amen.

Sunday Commute

The Sunday morning commute has become one of the best prayer times of my week.

At the beginning of this year, our church moved from our suburban location–which was a two-minute drive from my home–to a soup kitchen downtown. Now it takes me 15-20 minutes to get to church, with several traffic lights between home and my destination. My husband will tell you that I will drive miles out of my way any day of the week to avoid sitting at traffic lights. But not on Sundays…not anymore. driving_praying

A few months ago I began thinking of the Sunday morning commute as a prime time for prayer.

I’m the associate pastor at my church, so you may think that it’s a given that I would be prayerful on Sunday mornings as I prepare for our worship service. Not necessarily! (If you are a pastor, perhaps you are smiling in agreement!) It’s far too easy for my mind to drift to whatever I need to do when I get to church, who I need to speak with, or anticipate where I might have to fill in for an absent volunteer minister. If I’m preaching, my tendency is to review and critique my sermon for the umpteenth time. When engaged in that line of thinking, I arrive at church wired and ready to get busy with work…not worship.

I spent ten years on staff at a church where I went to work on Sunday mornings. When I left, I was on the verge of burnout. I did not practice self-care. I allowed the demands of ministry to take precedence over my need to worship, to give God the honor and glory that is due him, and in turn to experience the satisfaction of doing what I was created to do: worship God.

Sundays are for worship, not work. Yes, I have responsibilities on Sunday mornings, but my first priority is to worship God. Praying through the drive to church makes all the difference in my ability to prioritize worship over work. Rather than focus on the to-do list, I…

  • acknowledge God’s faithfulness, thanking him for a new day, and for the privilege of living in a country where I can worship him freely
  • thank Jesus for enduring the cross so that I can live free
  • thank God for those he will bring through our church door who are searching
  • lift up all those who are preparing to come to church, asking God to remove any obstacles, and to pour out a spirit of cooperation on spouses and children
  • pray for those who are struggling with the temptation to stay home, to skip church this week, asking God to stir up a holy desire for worship and fellowship with their church family
  • ask the Holy Spirit to annoint the preaching pastor as he opens God’s word, and to stir our minds and hearts to belief and obedience
  • ask God to bless the volunteer ministers as they bless those whom they serve
  • and I pray that God will be blessed by the worship we bring.

What I’m amazed to find is that when the worship service begins, when the first note of the first song sounds, my heart and my mind sync with the Holy Spirit and worship overflows!

So, what do you do on your Sunday commute?