these inward trials

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

If They Can, Why Can't We?

Depression. Counseling. Anxiety. Therapy. Mental Health.

I think the attitude toward these words, toward these things, is changing, but even now, there is so much stigma attached to them. My impressions of these words for the first two-thirds of my life was that they were way "out there," that sure, some people had to deal with those things, but only in very serious situations.

I have been encouraged to see Christians begin to talk about these things out in the open. But what is even more interesting to me is to see non-Christians talk about them. Bunmi Laditan, the genius behind the Honest Toddler, writes openly and poignantly on her Facebook page about her battles with anxiety. From what she writes, it seems like she has made peace with her anxiety, at least to the extent that she can.

Even more recently, Kristen Bell, star of Frozen and my personal favorite, Veronica Mars, shared in a recent interview that she has struggled with anxiety and depression since her late teens. With the encouragement of her mother, who explained that mental health issues run strongly on the female side of her family, she began taking medication, which she says has helped tremendously.

I love how Bell compares her mental health issues to diabetes. Part of my own story is that taking medication truly changed my life. The fact that things changed so drastically once I had consistent amounts of an anti-depressant in my system proved to me that at least one component of my struggles was purely biological. It was not something I could choose to stop experiencing. More prayer, more Bible reading, more counseling was not going to fix it.

As I've watched this women talk openly in public spaces about these things, I've been encouraged to talk about it myself with other people. I'm not interested in trying to shock people with my transparency about my struggles. My goal instead is to say, "This has been very hard for me, but Jesus has carried me through and continues to carry me." Additionally, I want to be a safe place for other people to talk about what they're experiencing.

It's been amazing to me that sometimes, almost as soon as I utter the words "depression" or "anxiety," the person with whom I'm speaking blurts out, "I've struggled with that as well!" Instantly, a deep bond is formed between us, and it is no longer something to be ashamed of, but rather, something to talk about honestly.

I find it ironic that those who do not claim to believe the gospel are brave enough to share their struggles. They are not afraid to own their weakness.

So why are we? Why do we try to pretend like we have it all together? Even if you haven't ever been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, we are all guilty of building up a facade that looks good. We may even go so far as to use social media to reveal minor failings--I did just that on Sunday with a fail of a Mother's Day picture with my boys. But what if I were brave enough to admit that sometimes, when I'm with my boys and my anxiety is through the roof and they are continually talking so much so that my brain feels like it might explode, I will think about how all I want to do is run away from them and never see them again.

That is a momentary thought, and it passes, but I've had it more than once. And it's not the kind of thing you really want to post on Facebook or Instagram. It's ugly and dark.

But because of what Jesus has done, I can say it. I can say it to him, I can say it to Christian, and I can say it to trusted friends. Because that feeling is not the end of the story. Because of what Jesus has done, there is room to grow and grace to do it.

This morning we were in a rush to get out the door and both of the boys were talking at the same time. I felt my chest getting tight and just knew I was going to lose it at one or both of them. But almost as if someone else were controlling me, I put my hand on one of their shoulders and said quietly, "Hold on, sweetie, until your brother is finished talking."

Medication and counseling and pursuing spiritual disciplines have been vital to trudging out of the darkness I was in for many months. But Jesus can take me further than any of those things ever can. And because I know that he can and I know he will continue to do so, I will keep talking about those hard things. Truly, we're the only ones who should feel the most courage to do so.d

Sunday, May 8, 2016

On Being a Good Mom

Mother's Day is a polarizing holiday. There are those who lean into it and are sensitive toward those who are mothers as well as toward those who would long to be mothers. There are those who almost refuse to recognize it out of principle. There are those who attempt to include all women, even those who never plan on being a mother, under the umbrella of celebration.

Facebook is replete with temporary profile pictures, grown children with their mothers who are now grandmothers, young children with their young mothers, and everything in between. There is the opportunity to reflect not only on what your own mother was to you, but also on those other women who throughout your life have mothered you apart from blood or family ties.

And so I write this, aware that I will eventually exclude most every kind of mom or not-mom except for the kind who are living in the same place that I am: a mom with children still at home.

My boys are now 5 and 6, stair steps with just 15 months between. They share the same hair color, the same eye color, and are often mistaken for twins. Sometimes I catch a glance of them doing something and think, "I can't believe they're mine." When I let them out of the car for school in the morning and see them walking up the sidewalk together, backpacks and lunchboxes in hand, it sometimes feels like time is slipping away, and I remember cold winters with the younger one in a carrier on my chest and the older one holding my hand as we walked around the block ad nauseum, trying to make long days pass a bit faster.

Five years ago on Mother's Day, I was coming home from the children's hospital with my week-old baby, then free of the threat of jaundice, and welcoming my fifteen-month-old who wasn't walking yet. Two children in diapers, one mobile, but unable to get himself into the car alone. I'm surprised I didn't lose more weight in those first few months.

That same year, because of Cohen's early birth and the timing that placed his arrival square in the middle of Christian's final seminary exams of the semester, I looked Christian in the eye and said, "I can't have any more babies right now." We still thought we had at least 3 years left of seminary, and I felt extraordinarily overwhelmed.

Now we are in a beautiful stage where everyone can handle bathroom issues alone, everyone knows how to get dressed, and everyone can walk safely from one place to another. We've come a long way.

But it doesn't mean things are easy. If anything, in some ways, they are harder. The options for dealing with a two-year-old throwing a tantrum are relatively simple. The consequences for a six-year-old who lies willingly are more complex. There are expectations built up over time, and there are experiences that start to dictate to children how they think things should be. Just today, my parents were taking the boys to see a movie, which is a rare treat in our home, and my older son cried because it wasn't the same movie theater we went to in November. "There are some things worth crying about," I said for the one-hundredth time, "but this is not one of them."

I do not feel like more of an expert on parenting than I did when Stephen was born just 10 months after Christian and I got married. If anything, I feel more unsure of the best way to handle certain things. And so it is always a struggle when a fellow mom shares her current struggle, and asks me what I think she should do.

I have learned that what works for my kids might not work for your kids.
I have learned that discipline is best done not by a rigidly responding to every infraction, but by looking into your child's heart and seeing what is really there.
I have learned that you can put your kids on a schedule or you can let them sleep in the bed with you, and they can still turn out alright.

And yet what I keep hearing and seeing on the Internet and in the lives of my friends is the harrowing question, "Am I a good mom?"

We all know there are moms who are moms only because they give birth to children. From even before their children are born, they do not care for them. But they are moms. And then there are moms who seem to have it all together. I think most of us feel that there is a spectrum, and we are somewhere on it, but daily we slide back and forth between one end or the other. "Well, I didn't yell at my kids today, but I did feed them goldfish for all three meals."

I hear friends confessing something they did or didn't do in regards to their children, and what they are really asking me is if I think they are good moms.

I have spent the last 6+ years striving to be a good mom, and I know that if I asked on Facebook whether or not anyone there thinks I am a good mom, there would be a resounding affirmation that yes, Chelsey, you are a good mom.

But what happens when we ask God that question?

"Lord, am I a good mom?"

Jesus is not interested in puffing up our self-esteem or giving us fluffy reasons to feel good about ourselves. That may not feel like love to us, but it is, because love means telling the truth.

And the truth is that none of us are good moms.

You can feed your child 100% organic food, but it doesn't make you a good mom.

You can homeschool your children from birth through high school, but it doesn't make you a good mom.

You can read to your children every night before bed, but it doesn't make you a good mom.

And if you are already doing those things, then don't stop doing them. There are a thousand good things we do each day for the sake of our children that we should all keep doing. But they don't determine whether or not we are good moms.

The gospel says that none of us are good anythings, but that recognizing that is the first step of following Jesus. If I comprehend the fact that I am not a good mom, then I am desperate to find someone who is good, who does know what I should do—someone who can help me.

Jesus came for the neglectful moms and the helicopter moms. Jesus came for the healthy moms and the junk food moms. Jesus came for the working moms and the stay-at-home moms. Jesus came for the public school moms and the homeschool moms. Because none of those moms are good, and all of us need Jesus.

This Mother's Day, I hope you can be thankful for the children God has given you, even when being their mom feels like a burden. And I also hope that you can find true freedom in the gospel of Jesus Christ. May you continue to love your children well, all the while knowing that the only reason you can do anything is because of the love that has already been poured out in your heart by our God, who both mothers and fathers us with tenderness and compassion.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

School Guilt

The guilty I felt in the first few weeks of the school year threatened to undo me. I would tell myself all the things I had told other people: "We're taking it year by year..." "If it's not going well, I'll be the first one to pull them out..." "I'm totally pro-homeschooling, but we decided to send the boys to public school..."

I was trying to convince other people as much as I was trying to convince myself. On one hand, after the trauma of the summer, I couldn't imagine them being home all day. I felt I had dragged us all over the finish line that marked the end of the summer. I had no strength left, and even if I had been planning to homeschool them, I don't know how I would have managed lesson planning or buying curriculum. From every angle anyone could see, public school made sense.

And here we are, just a few weeks away from the end of the school year. Cohen will be in kindergarten next year after blazing his way through 4K. He is starting to read, he can write his full name, and he loves his best friend, Cole. Stephen has ended the year with his teacher describing him as a caring friend and humble leader in his class. There were ups and downs, but overall, it has been a wonderful year, one that I could not have foreseen in late August.

I thought they could survive, and that they would have to in order for me to have the space I needed to rest and recover from severe anxiety and depression. But they have done more than survive. They have thrived. When I spend time with them at school, I see the relationships they have made with other students, with their teachers, with the rest of the staff. They have a community at their school, and they love being there.

That doesn't even take into account the many blessings I've experienced because they were there. I've been able to go on field trips with them and meet other parents. For reasons that I still don't understand, they allowed me to organize the school talent show, for which Stephen was the Master of Ceremonies, a role he took extremely seriously (Cohen, on the other hand, showed his own talent during the show: being completely unable to stay still for more than 2 seconds).

I have gotten to know the principal, both of the boys' teachers, and other parents. I have had the opportunity to attempt to show appreciation and love for the boys' teachers, who serve daily in what I know is often a thankless job.

The guilt, I think, is gone. What I thought was Plan Z, the thing we were doing because I just wasn't equipped to handle any other scenario, has worked for the good of both boys, for me, for Christian, and I hope for those with whom we've interacted.

It's almost like there is a God who promised to work all things together for good for his people, a God who never lies and always keeps his promises.

Friday, May 6, 2016

We Get to Stay

We have been living in limbo, in transition, in a valley--the metaphors and analogies abound--for months now. I wouldn't let myself think about the future, because it seemed too ominous. I would have a great conversation with another parent at my boys' school, but then I would think--will we even be here next year? At church, I found myself opening up to other women despite my best efforts to guard what little of myself was left, but when I did, I was received with warmth and grace. And yet even those graces felt poisoned with anxiety. This was a wonderful church, but the chances of being able to stay there were so slim.

Being a pastor is a high calling. My husband feels the weight of it, and I do as well. I have felt no greater joy than seeing him use his gifts in pastoral ministry to shepherd God's people, and yet that is also where we have experienced some of our deepest sorrows. The other difficult part about being married to a pastor is that your job determines your community. If my husband could not pastor at our current church, then we would have to find another church where he could. And so while trying to heal and recover and rest, we have been facing the prospect of having to leave. As an old friend said to me a few days ago, "You have had to leave too many churches."

If the church is the true community of saints that God says it is, then it's not surprising that it feels a bit like death when you have to leave one local community for another. You are still within the "family," but the comfort and familiarity is gone, and in a sense, you have to start over.

I did not want to start over.

If I had ever been tempted to think that God rewards us with good things for our faith, for our perseverance, for our obedience, then the last nine months should be able to provide testimony for the contrary. I have doubted his goodness. I have feared his lack of provision. I have imagined that he looks at me in anger, in displeasure. I have not always grounded myself in the truth of his Word, and instead have frequently let anxiety completely consume me.

And yet he overwhelmingly, abundantly showered blessing on us.

It was a two-word text as I ran on Wednesday morning. I turned off my music, stopped running, and sat on the curb of someone's house as I tried to convince myself it was true. It didn't seem like it could be. Was it a dream? But time and more texts confirmed the truth of it.

In my mind, it wasn't, "Oh, good, now we don't have to worry about how to pay our bills in four months," or even "Oh, good, Christian won't have to work at Chick-fil-a much longer." Mostly it was just "We get to stay. We get to stay. We get to stay."

We get to stay. This gospel-loving community of saints that embraced us and welcomed us when we were broken and raw and reeling from the events of the last half of last year was not just our temporary family. We get to stay.