these inward trials

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Eight Months Later, It Might Be Hope

Many years ago, before my husband and I were even married, we went to a concert of a musician who I had never seen perform before. Her name was Sara Groves, and the only two songs that I remember from that night are one she wrote for her sons that I sang to my own boys in tears once I understood what the words to her song actually meant, and another song she wrote for a friend who had been in a long season of depression. At the time I don't know that I would have said I had ever been depressed, although looking back now, I can pinpoint specific periods of time when I was most definitely struggling with depression, but I didn't know what to call it. And yet the words to this song spoke to me.

As I tried to put into words what I was feeling yesterday, this song came to mind, and as I refreshed my memory as to the words of the song, it felt like the most perfect way to explain.

You do your work the best that you can;
You put one foot in front of the other.
Life comes in waves and makes its demands;
You hold on as well as you're able.

You've been here for a long, long time...

Hope has a way of turning its face to you
Just when you least expect it:
You walk in a room; you look out a window,
And something there leaves you breathless.
You say to yourself,
"It's been a while since I felt this,
But it feels like it might be hope."

It's hard to recall what blew out the flame;
It's been dark since you can remember.
You talk it all through to find it a name
As days go on by without number.

You've been here for a long, long time...

Hope has a way of turning its face to you
Just when you least expect it:
You walk in a room; you look out a window,
And something there leaves you breathless.
You say to yourself,
"It's been a while since I felt this,
But it feels like it might be hope."

Suddenly the thought of weaning off the anti-depressant I've been taking for 7 months didn't feel overwhelming or terrifying. Suddenly I felt like I was willing to try not taking the medication I've been using to help me sleep. Suddenly the conversation about having more children, which up until this point had felt absolutely beyond what I could even comprehend, was a conversation I wanted to have.

Nothing big changed between Monday and Tuesday. I have been doing what I have been trying to do for the last eight months: Just keep swimming. My husband is still looking for a full-time job at a church. We are still living off his severance package from our old church. Our future still looks very fuzzy from our perspective. And yet, overnight, everything got brighter and I felt like a veil had been removed from my eyes. 

I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the staff at the boys' school who so graciously encouraged Stephen when he got knocked out of the spelling bee. I was thankful for my mom, who is always there to talk to me on the phone. I praised the Lord for our new church home, where we are being discipled and loved and cared for. I thanked Jesus for mental clarity, for the ability to resist the temptation to be overtaken by anxiety. It has not been too long for me to remember drowning in anxiety, and feeling the onset of it and then being able to fight it by God's grace is not something I am taking for granted. I texted a friend to thank her for pushing me to go back to a Bible study I have been gone from for over a year, to thank her for not letting me isolate myself.

These things were true before yesterday, but I just couldn't see how beautiful they are. I could objectively see them as blessings, but they didn't feel in my heart like blessings. I know that the Christian life is not based on our feelings, and for that I am ultimately thankful, but God created us as emotional beings, and so we can't completely divide our faith from our feelings. We must always respond in obedient faith to our feelings, even when our feelings seem more real than Jesus. But every once in a while, like on this particular Tuesday, God graces us with the beauty that is the unification of our faith and our feelings. We believe, and we feel, and both of them are appropriate.

It's been a while since I felt this, but it feels like it might be hope.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Humility and Dependence

It was New Year's Eve 2014 and I sat on the steps going out to the parking lot from our apartment building. I had just finished telling my mom about the current trial we were facing at church, and when we finally ended the call, I released it all in tears instead of words. I was angry at people for not doing what I thought they should do. I was angry at the Lord for the way he had ordained things to happen. I was discontent with where our family was living. And as the hours in that day ticked away into a new year, I felt a gentle trail of thought weave through my mind: Lord, humble me. I knew that the answer to all of that anger and discontentment was humility. And so I prayed that 2015 would be a year in which the Lord taught me what it looked like to be humble.

As the months wore on I began to grow somewhat uncomfortable with what I felt the Lord was doing. For some reason I thought if I were truly humble maybe life wouldn't bother me so much. I would be content no matter what. The opposite was happening. Everything was hard. People disappointed me. I didn't feel like I was succeeding at all at being the kind of mom I wanted to be. And every once in a while I would think, "Am I being humble?" and I never really knew if I was or not.

Things happened, then more things happened. Then one night I was laying on a hospital bed in a sparse room with background sounds of mentally disabled men yelling at the staff in the nurses' station and for the first time in my life I felt that I was completely powerless to do anything. I couldn't leave the hospital by myself because my mom had driven me there and then they had sent her home until the morning. I couldn't even leave the room without permission. I couldn't call anyone because they had taken my purse. I was completely alone, and I couldn't do anything to fix it.

I had ended up there after three weeks of barely sleeping, which had exacerbated the growing anxiety produced by stressful events earlier in the summer. In an attempt to survive the weekend until I could go see my family doctor, I went to urgent care and asked them for something to help me sleep. I can't remember now what they gave me, but it sent me into an hours-long panic attack during which I truly thought I was going to die. It was the middle of the night and my mom came and took me to the hospital while Christian stayed with the boys.

In that room, by myself, I stared at the ceiling and tried to feel that Jesus was near me. I talked to him because there was nothing else to do. And I didn't hear him talking back to me (which would have been interesting, by the way, because the nurses who kept coming to check on me frequently asked me if I had heard voices) and I didn't feel any sort of spiritual emotions within me. But I knew I wasn't alone. I couldn't have lived, I don't think, if I had thought I was alone, because it had come to the point where I didn't think anyone could understand what it was like to want desperately to sleep but not be able to, to feel myself having a nervous breakdown and not be able to stop it, to not even feel able to be with my children for any length of time. But somehow, even though everything else in my mind was warring against me with lies and untruths, I knew that the one thing I could be sure about was that Jesus understood.

I wasn't thinking about whether or not I was humble that night. All I was thinking was, "JESUS, HELP ME!" I felt the full depth of my need for him, and I knew there was nothing I could do to help myself.

By God's grace, that night was an anomaly. Through counseling, medication, prayer, and faithful friends and family, I am in a much better place than I was back then. As this year drew to a close, though, I thought back on my goal of seeking humility last year. And it was then that I realized that I don't think God answers prayers for humility by making us more aware of whether or not we are being humble. Maybe for those who only have a moderate struggle with pride and self-reliance, he does work that way. But for me, it took knocking my feet out from under me until I could see my heart for what it is and feel how completely helpless I am without Jesus. That wasn't what I thought I was praying for on the last day of 2014. But that was how he answered it.

As 2016 starts, I have felt the word dependence ringing in my ears, and I am hesitantly praying that the Lord would change my heart to truly depend on him for everything I need. At first I was afraid to even think about this, because so far the way the Lord has answered my prayers for sanctification has been incredibly painful. But as we entered this year without a church and without a steady source of income, I realized that the Lord is already answering that prayer. We literally started 2016 in a position of forced dependence on the Lord. If anything changes, it will only be because of him.

I cannot pretend to understand the ways of the Lord, and I have stopped trying. The position he desires for us to take in relation to him is not one of equals, two partners discussing the right and wrong way to do things. He is the Father, and I am the child, and just as a child does not always like what his father chooses, the child of a truly loving father does not despair in his lack of understanding. He trusts not in the actions of the father but in the heart that he knows the father has toward him.

Here is my prayer for 2016: Lord, make me humbly dependent on you. I am afraid of what might happen when I pray this, because I feel numb and vulnerable and empty. But if you are the God you say you are, you know what I need before I need it. Give me the grace to trust you even when I don't understand.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

What Christmas Feels Like

The weather here has been unseasonably warm for December. It isn't that we normally expect a white Christmas in South Carolina, but my boys aren't usually wearing shorts after Thanksgiving. It hasn't felt like Christmas outside.

And yet this is when the cashiers at the grocery store start asking, "Are you ready for Christmas?" They are asking about whether we have the menu planned and the presents bought, but I hear it on a deeper level.

I've never felt ready for Christmas.

My husband calls the day after Christmas the most anticlimactic day of the year. You spend so much time anticipating December 25, and how could a regular old day follow such a day of excitement? Such is the curse placed on December 26. For almost all of the past several Christmas seasons, I have felt like I didn't fully capture Christmas that year. Maybe I had waited too long to buy presents and so the week before Christmas was hectic. Or maybe I had missed church due to sickness and didn't get to sing many of my favorite Advent hymns. Whatever the reason, it always felt like something was missing.

And so every year, once Thanksgiving ends, I look ahead and wonder if this year will be different. Will I really feel deeply what Advent, the waiting time, is all about?

The last five months have been painful and difficult for our family, and so I just assumed that when December started, it would be like every other year. Biding my time until Christmas came, and then we would just start the whole year over again. In fact, I thought this might be the most difficult Christmas we have ever had, as we are facing many transitions in the new year and aren't quite sure how to approach them.

To my surprise, I think this is the first year, maybe in my whole life, but at least in a long time, that I understand what it means to be in Advent, to remember those who were waiting for the Messiah, and now, thousands of years after his birth and death, to be looking ahead to his coming again.

When everything is cheery and bright and happy, it's hard to feel a desire for some kind of rescue, for something different. Things are fine just the way they are, thank you very much.

But when life is hard, when relationships have broken, when the future is uncertain, when you lose trust in those who are in authority over you... it's all you can do to say, "Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!"

I don't know that I have it in me to hope that every Christmas will be like this year. But I hope that I don't forget the heavy weight I have carried these past few weeks. Mary, Joseph, far from home and physically exhausted. Simon, Anna, wondering if they would die before they saw the Messiah. Zechariah, Elizabeth, realizing that the God they worshiped really could do the impossible. That is the God I want, and that is the Savior I need. That is Christmas.

This morning we woke to a cloudy, drizzly day, and a touch of chill in the air. The warm weather is gone, at least for today, which is what I had been hoping for, but I had hoped for cold, sunny weather, not dreary downpours. It still doesn't feel like Christmas outside, but here, in our warm house, with my husband and my two precious boys, my heart is waiting and expectant. I'm ready for Christmas.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Making Peace with Grief

Grief didn't knock on the door or give me any warning that it had taken up residence. It crept in while I wasn't looking and made its home in every recess of my heart, and it waited. Waited for me to notice it was there.

I felt its presence before I knew its name. My life as a functional person, as a mother and wife, slowly ceased to exist. It wasn't until a friend looked into my eyes and heard me describe what I had been experiencing that I started to grasp what was happening to me, to frame it in a way I could understand. I didn't know how it could define me so quickly and pervasively, but at least I knew what to call it.

I've learned that there is no timeline for grief. I was at the gym, listening to a podcast where a woman was giving advice to a mother whose six-year-old son was still trying to process the loss of his father, which had happened when he was three years old. She made sure to emphasize that although the freshness of pain may lessen over time, grief and the loss are always part of the story.

You don't get over grief. It's part of you. This helped me to a certain extent, because I was able to see that this grief I have experienced is not an invasive presence that I am going to be spending the next several months trying to get rid of and forget.

Maybe there is a way to make peace with grief.

To see it not as an intruder, but as another chapter of the story that the Lord is writing for my life. It doesn't mean that I rejoice in it. It doesn't mean that I want more things like this to happen to me. But it does mean that I don't have to feel like the aftermath, the sorrow, the tears, has been a waste.

When grief arrived, it found company. Some of its companions have actually been a part of my story for a very long time. Loss and sorrow woke them from their restless slumber. 

If grief was every breath, then depression was cancer. Counseling and medication and getting out of bed each day was the chemotherapy, and I am still doing chemotherapy, four months later.

The difference is, our culture has a language to talk about cancer. It's not pleasant to discuss, and I'm sure that those who have experience with cancer might be slightly offended that I would compare it to depression on any level. I certainly don't intend to offend, but I think the analogy is helpful, because in the same way that no one would ever blame someone for having cancer, when depression has any part of its source in one's biology and physiology, it is no more one's fault for experiencing it. But most people, especially Christians, don't see depression that way. So instead it is treated like a sin, or, at best, like a disease, but a disease that you brought on yourself.

And so this journey begins with me looking grief and anxiety and depression and all their associated friends straight in the eyes and saying, "I see you. I hear you. I know that you are here. But I will not let this part of my life be any kind of ending point. By God's grace, it will be a beginning of me learning how to live well in the midst of you being here. My hope is not in a cure for a disorder, but in a Person, and he has promised never to leave me or forsake me."