On Anxiety, Anger, and Trust

Slowly I put one foot in front of the other. To my right, windows reach from floor to ceiling. In the darkness of night I can see the snow on the rooftops below sparkling in the building’s light. To my left, a wall of glass looks down on the hospital entryway below. During the day the noises of people echo softly through this hall way, but now all is quiet.

From the top floor this hall circles the edge of the building, circles the entryway below, and as I walk it’s circles my heart circles around the same worries. Each lap taking me a little deeper into anxiety. I walk as if trying to shake off the day, trying to escape the fear that has gripped me, but with each circling lap it becomes more and more clear that it’s not working.

Only hours before I stood in the Urgent Care with my four year old son. He sat in a stroller nearly too small for his preschool body. His eyes glazed over in a motionless stare. His little face flushed with the fever which had reached 103 degrees only minutes before. He complained of a headache and begged me to hold him. My heart longed to sweep him up in my arms and cuddle his aches away. I wanted to hold him close and never let him go. But, my head recoiled. I would never hold back my love for my child just because I was fearful of catching whatever illness he had, or at least I had never thought that I would, but in that instant I had to. I had to protect myself as a means for protecting my husband.

Bryan is now half way through his chemo treatment. His white blood cells are starting to fall. The goal of this treatment is to bring his white blood cells as close to zero as possible. They literally want to destroy his immune system. Once he is neutropenic then the real treatment can be given. That is when they will give him the millions of white blood cells – his white blood cells – that they have grown and trained to fight his particular cancer. That is also when they will give him Interleukin 2 as a support for the cells they inject into him. During that time he will have no immune system, he will be dangerously susceptible to illnesses and infections of any and every kind.

I cannot risk getting sick now, because Bryan cannot risk getting sick now. I will not be separated from my husband during the most difficult thing he has ever walked through. So I say no to my son’s begging. I step back instead of stepping forward and my heart breaks. My sister flashes me an understanding and heartbroken look, before offering to hold Thad for me. “Thad, can I hold you? I’m not your mommy, but I am a mommy? Can I hold you?” My heart swells in gratitude for my sister – she has a beautifully mothering heart – but at the same time it aches for my son.

I had thought I understood stress. I thought I was already under as much stress as I possibly could stand, and then Thad came down with a fever and I felt my worst fears being realized. I couldn’t pray. I couldn’t even think. All I could picture was myself coming down with whatever Thad had and being unable to be with Bryan and then Bryan getting it anyway because he had already spent time with Thad. This has been one of my worst fears since coming to NIH. And now I felt that fear knocking on my door, threatening to come in.

Looking back on the day as I walk I try to pray. I beg God to protect Bryan and keep him well, to protect me and keep me from coming down with anything, to heal Thad and restore him quickly. Lap after lap I lay the same request before Him. But, the hall is silent and my anxiety only grows. And then as I round the corner I hear a gentle voice, “You are worrying about something you cannot control.” And I only walk faster. I want to scream, “But I WANT to control it. I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want Bryan to get sick! I don’t want anything to happen to Thad and I don’t want him to suffer through illness without his mom! I DON’T WANT THIS! It’s not right! I want to worry about this because I want to control this.”

The voice comes back again, “But you can’t control this.” And I remember my blog post from a few days ago about Worry. I remember how I had concluded that it seemed ok to me to worry about things that I could control, choices I could make – it seemed ok, and perhaps even right, to worry about the things that were within my free will.

I fight back again, “But there were decisions I could have made things I could have done to prevent this! I shouldn’t have let Thad come out here. I should have kept him home. Even today when my sister told me he woke up teary and seemed out of sorts I should have heard that as a warning sign and kept him away. I should have left him and sent him to urgent care with my sister instead of going myself and exposing myself to whatever other germs there were at the urgent care. I should have… I should have… I should have…”

The voice is gentle, “You did what you could. You made the choices that seemed best to you at the time. You took steps to protect both Thad and Bryan. You got Thad on antibiotics right away, even though that wouldn’t normally be your first course of action. You wore a mask yourself and used lots of hand sanitation and even showered before going back to see Bryan. You did what you could within your free will. So, why are you still holding on to this? Why are you still so anxious over something you can’t control?”

Finishing the lap I stop and stand still. Directly in front of me is the small hospital chapel. I move towards the doorway as if pulled by gravity. But I cannot step inside. There is a war going on within me and stepping inside would be acknowledging defeat.

In my head I know that I shouldn’t be holding on to this anxiety about something I cannot control. In my head I know that Bryan could get sick while he’s neutropenic and there could be nothing that I can do to stop it. In my head I know that I could get sick – not only from my exposure to Thad, but just from the fact that I’m hanging out in a hospital all day. I know that I cannot control whether or not those things happen. I can take steps to prevent those things from happening, but now that I have done that I should be able to let go of the anxiety and trust God to do for us what is best.

But, there is the clincher. There is the heart of the issue. Trust.

Standing in that doorway, unable to step forward and yet also unable to step back I know I face a choice. The same choice I have faced a thousand times before and will probably face a thousand times again. Will I trust?

I start to cry. Not the soft tears of acceptance, but the hard sobs of anger. I am angry that Thad got sick. Angry that there is an increased risk that I will get sick and that Bryan might get sick. But, more than that I am angry that we are here at all. It is the first time I feel it, really feel it deep in my bones, this anger at the injustice, the un-rightness, of cancer. “God, how can I trust when you are not trustworthy!?!?” The words spill out of my lips thorough desperate broken cries.

“Do you really believe that?” “YES!” I cry back. And the truth is finally out. My head may proclaim God’s trustworthiness, but my heart tells a different story. In the depths of me there is not just questioning of God and his trustworthiness there is a knowing. There is a root within me that knows without a doubt that He is untrustworthy.

And now we can really talk. Now that the heart is exposed we can really begin the battle. In the silence a simple thought comes. How do you define trustworthiness? By who’s standards do you judge your God?

By my own, of course! By my own desires and goals and wills. I want what I want and when I don’t get it, like a small child, I holler and yell and believe that God is untrustworthy. Standing in that door way that is exactly what I do. I throw a classic tantrum. I fall to my knees. I play out all of my worst scenarios in my head and ask myself at the end of each “Would God be trustworthy then? How could God be trustworthy if that happened?”

God does not defend himself. He is silent, but more present than I have ever felt him before. And then when I have few tears left to cry the words come, “Will you follow me anyway? Will you follow as Abraham did, to an alter? Will you place Thad and Bryan and Sage and all that you care for in my care, on my alter, as Abraham placed Isaac?”

Remembering the story I suddenly felt calm, “Will you give them all back to me safe and sound, as you gave Isaac back to Abraham?” But, I know as soon as I speak the words that this is not a bargaining ground. This must be trust, real trust, complete trust, heart trust. I stand again and stare through the doorway, down the isle, at the simple alter in the front of the chapel. And suddenly something breaks within me and I take that first step singing through choked tears.

You are good You are good
when there’s nothing good in me.
You are love You are love
On display for all to see
You are light You are light
When the darkness closes in
You are hope You are hope
You have covered all my sin

(Oh) I’m running to Your arms
I’m running to Your arms
The riches of Your love
Will always be enough
Nothing compares to Your embrace
Light of the world forever reign

You are peace You are peace
When my fear is crippling
You are true You are true
Even in my wandering
You are joy You are joy
You’re the reason that I sing
You are life You are life
In You death has lost its sting

You are more You are more
Than my words will ever say
You are Lord You are Lord
All creation will proclaim
You are here You are here
In Your presence I’m made whole
You are God You are God
Of all else I’m letting go

 

It feels like a very long walk from the doorway to the alter, but is in reality only a couple of steps. By the time I reach the alter I fall to my knees again, arms raised in the empty chapel. This is what it means to surrender. This surrender costs something.  This is what it means to praise in the midst of darkness.

After a few minutes the tears ease up and I feel drawn to the podium. On the empty podium rests a large lectionary. I turn to the marked page – the reading for the second sunday in Advent:

 

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[b] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

I nearly laugh when I read the passage, but instead tears begin to flow again.

Many years ago when I was in college and going through a difficult season, questioning God’s goodness, I read a book called The Prisoner in the Third Cell . It was very transformative for me and centered around this passage of scripture when John the Baptist was in prison.

Here is John in the middle of his own dark night, questioning the very Jesus whom he had proclaimed. John was faced with the same question I just wrestled with in the doorway of this hospital chapel, “Will you follow me even though you don’t understand me? Will you follow me even though I don’t do things the way you want me to do things? Will you follow me even though it might cost you everything you hold dear? Will you follow me and trust me even though I may lead you to places you wouldn’t choose to go?”

The walk away from the podium, away from the alter, out of the chapel was entirely different from the walk in. My heart was light as I crossed easily through the doorway. I will follow. I do trust.

 

Rejoicing in the journey,

Bethany

 

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Extravagant Gifts and Unnecessary Signs

I’ve always thought it was sort of silly when someone was too proud to ask for or accept help. I’ve always thought that when someone offers you a gracious gift you should accept it with gratitude and the hope that one day you could graciously gift someone else.

But, today I’m sort of struggling with those concepts. Here’s why…

“We want to buy you a car.” My dad’s words where clear, direct and concise  but I am pretty sure I still responded by saying “What?” into the phone a number of times. I was stunned. And he wasn’t talking about just getting us any car, he was talking about getting us a new car, a minivan – something large enough for the wheelchair or other equipment Sage will most likely need eventually – something reliable that will last us a long time.

Only a week before they had told us they wanted to pay for our airfare to go back to Prague for a visit this summer.

It’s too much. It felt like too much to accept.

And for some reason it’s harder for me to accept right now. It feels excessive and unnecessary.

We have spent years of our married life living below what the US federal government considers the poverty line. We have in the past made choices to value time together, traveling and living abroad over building up some post-college career in a specific location. We have lost jobs unexpectedly. And we have made a few poor financial decisions (like buying a condo in Prague just before the market crashed everywhere).

Because of that we have had opportunity to accept help from friends and family alike in the past. We lived with another couple in Prague without them charging us rent, we accepted an older car as a gift from our church, and whenever my mom came to visit I let her buy groceries for me. These were not terribly difficult things to accept beacuse they were things we really truly needed and things that at the time we really truly couldn’t provide for ourselves.

Our financial situation is very different now. Bryan has a steady full-time job with a decent salary. We are slowly starting to build up our savings again. Sure, medical bills continue to come in and slow that process down, but we are doing well, really well, relative to past years.

Despite that, a trip to Prague and a new car are far outside what we can afford. They are things that we definitely can’t give ourselves. They are not necessities. They are extravagant.

We don’t need a trip to Prague. We want to go back to Prague and visit our friends and show the kids where we used to live, but it’s not a necessity.

And neither is a new car. Sure our present car is older and has had some problems in the past few months. It’s not completely reliable, but it works (most of the time). Sure eventually we will probably need a different car – soemthing that’s easy to get Sage in and out of even as she gets bigger without gaining much mobility and something that would allow us to carry around any equipment she may need, but for right now, at this season, our current car still meets our needs.

And that’s where my struggle comes in. I’m struggling to accept these extravagant non-necessary gifts.

I was thinking today about how I also struggle to accept God’s extravagant gifts. It’s not terribly hard for me to believe in a all-powerful God, or to accept that this God desires to save humanity – I need a God like that. I need saving and it feels necessary.

But, is it necessary for him to love me in the daily bits of my life? Is it necessary for him to provide for us time and time again? Is it necessary for him to pour out grace upon grace on us? No not really. And honestly I often struggle to accept that God really loves me and cares about me. That the eternal creator, that the Spirit of life, wants to give me good things.

Even with Sage’s diagnosis and Bryan’s diagnosis too, I haven’t felt angry with God or even questioned why. He doesn’t owe me anything. He has every right to give AND to take and I don’t struggle to accept that. What it’s harder for me to accept is that perhaps he would want to miraculously give Bryan more time. Perhaps he would want to miraculously surprise us with Sage’s abilities.

I pray every day that God would grant Bryan and I more time together, that he would extend Bryan’s life like he did Hezekiah’s, but even as I pray this prayer I feel like God granting it would be so extravagant, that I struggle to accept that he might.

The other day I was talking to a friend about this and telling her how I feel like dispite the fact that I do pray for a miracle like Hezekiah’s what I really need is for others to pray for that, because I can’t fully enter into that prayer. I need someone else to hold my arms like Moses and intercede on my behalf in my weakness and unbelief.

A few days ago I was reading the story of Hezekiah again and was struck by the fact that after Isaiah told Hezekiah that God was going to extend his life for 15 years Hezekiah asked for a sign that it would really happen and God graciously granted it. Hezekiah didn’t really need a sign, Isaiah had already told him. Perhaps Hezekiah was a bit like me and struggled to accept God’s gracious gift. Remarkably God gave Hezekiah an extravagant gift – an extravagant sign – talk about an extravagant sign too! He added more hours to the day just like he was adding more years to Hezekiah’s life!

As I prayed and did the dishes that night I told God I wanted a sign. I wanted to know like Hezekiah knew. I wanted that sort of extravagant unnecessary gift of knowledge from God.

Then I started wrestling with myself about whether or not it was even right for me to ask for a sign. I thought of the verse in the Gospels, “A wicked and idulterous generation asks for a sign and none will be given it accept the sign of Jonah.” I felt guilty. It must be wicked of me to ask this of God.

But, as soon as I thought of that verse I looked up and saw our goldfish swimming in his bowl.

The sign of Jonah… three days in the belly of a fish. I know this is refering to Christ being burried for three days before rising again, but somehow I felt like God was trying to tell me something about this goldfish on my counter.

“Could that be my sign?” I wondered.

And then a thought came to me that didn’t feel like it was my own – perhaps it was my subconcious, perhaps it was just me, but it felt different, you know?

“This goldfish looks strong and healthy and there’s no reason to think that it will be dead tomorrow, but statistically goldfish don’t live very long. Bryan looks strong and healthy and there’s no reason to think that he won’t live long, but statistically people with melanoma don’t.”

“Lord, could this be your sign to me? If the goldfish lives or dies?” The question bounced around in my head as I got ready for bed and as I woke up the next morning to be greeted by a happy goldfish. I thought of it all that day.

That night as I lay in bed I asked God, “how would it work if this was your sign to me?” And instantly, clear as day, a thought popped into my head that again seemed not my own, “Every day is a year.”

“Starting from this morning or tomorrow?” I asked.

“Starting today.” The answer came.

It has now been eight days. And as each day has come I have felt more hopeful, but also more doubt. I can’t fully believe that God would grant us another eight years or more. It’s easier for me to believe that things won’t go well, than it is for me to believe that God would want to give us the gracious gift of more time. It’s easier for me to believe that I am making up this whole goldfish sign nonsense than to think that perhaps God would give us this clarity.

And so with each passing day that my fish lives I wonder, “Is this really God’s sign to me? Or did I just make it all up? Would God really be gracious enough to give us more time like he gave Hezekiah? Would he gift us as extravagantly as my parents want to? Would he gift us as extravagantly as to gift us with the knowledge of how much time we have? Is he really that extravagant in his love?”

 

Do you ever struggle to accept the extravagant love of friends, family, or God? Has there ever been something that has helped you to accept a really big, or unnecessary, or unbelievable gift?

Rejoicing in the journey,
Bethany Stedman

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Love and Fear Dance Together

Today I read this post on Christine Sine’s blog. It was a great post and a wonderful addition to the recent synchroblog on Christianity and Immigration. At the end she quoted this poem by Michael Leuniq:

“There are only two feelings
Love and fear
There are only two languages
Love and fear
There are only two activities
Love and fear
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
two results.
Love and fear
Love and fear.”

As soon as I read this I had this picture in my head of love and fear dancing together. I thought about the Christian life as being a journey from fear to love. There’s a long phase of the journey where love hasn’t totally conquered fear yet, and so they dance together for a while. Sometimes love leads, and sometimes fear leads, but hopefully over the course of the journey love leads more and more often until one day fear is completely transformed and Love is all there is. I’ve been sitting with this picture all day.

Here’s a little something I wrote in response to all these thoughts:

Lord, I reach out to you in my darkness and there is fear.

I speak to you in my pain and there is fear.

In me is fear, around me is fear, from me is fear.

I am fear.

But, Lord, you reach out to me in my darkness and there is love.

You speak to me in my pain and there is love.

In you is love, around you is love, from you is love.

You are love.

Perfect love drives out all fear.

You come

And your love begins to dance with my fear.

And slowly, ever so slowly

Fear is driven out by love’s dance.

And you begin to whisper,

“Come, and do likewise!

Reach out your hand in love towards those in darkness

Speak out in love towards those in pain

Drive out fear from all places where it has made its home.

Be love to the other, as I have been love to you.”

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany Stedman

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Letting go and Trusting

So, I haven’t been sleeping very well since being pregnant. In fact I think in the past 23+ weeks that I’ve been pregnant I’ve only slept through the night without waking up once. Honestly, I’m very tired of that. But, last night during one of my many fits of wakefulness I was doing some thinking, or maybe feeling is a better word for it.

It seemed that suddenly I was flooded with all the many things that are currently going on in my life and the lives of those around me that I could worry about. As the many potential worries came at my mind and heart, waves of anxiety started to build. I rolled over trying to shut the thoughts out of my head. I tried to pray for myself and those I love, but it seemed everything came at me so fast and I didn’t know where to even beginning. Soon I was sitting up staring into the darkness, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. In that moment some words came to me, “Which of you by worrying can add a single hair to your head?… Oh, you of little faith.”

What does it mean to trust God in the midst of deep uncertainties and potential devastations? What does it look like to really have faith? How do we stop from spending our days in needless worry that gets us nowhere and does us no good?

I clearly don’t know the answers to these questions as my experience last night shows. But, as I lay there I started to see how truly pointless my worrying was. What did it gain me? It gained me nothing but more worry and anxiety. Then I began to think through each of the situations that were causing me stress. Not a single one of them was something that was in my control or something I could do anything about. I guess that’s why they caused me to worry so much in the first place – if I felt that I could do something about them then I would feel some release of anxiety because I would feel in control over them. But, the truly scary things in life are those things that we have absolutely no control over. So, maybe the act of trusting, the act of letting go of our worries and anxieties is really the act of acknowledging and accepting and surrendering to our ultimate lack of control.

That’s what I worked on last night… letting go. Recognizing my lack of control and accepting that someone far more gracious and loving than me is in control and I could rest in that. I didn’t totally figure it out, but I’m trying.

This morning I opened the Celtic Book of Daily Prayer and came across this section which seemed very applicable:

“Christ of the mysteries, can I trust You
to be stronger than each storm in me?

… I determine amidst all uncertainty
always to trust.

I believe You will make a way for me
and provide for me,
if only I trust You
and obey.

I will trust in the darkness and know
that my times are still in Your hand.”

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany Stedman

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Fear: A look in the Mirror

I had coffee with my friend, Sarah, today and God showed up. Sarah is such a wonderful friend to have when you need to process through things – she is an amazing listener and is great at asking just the right questions to draw you out of yourself and help you unpack things. I love my friend Sarah!!

Anyway, I went to coffee feeling really drained and tired. I went feeling physically unwell as well as emotionally unwell and I left feeling refreshed.

We talked about a lot of things, but mainly we talked about fear. I shared with Sarah the deep fear that I have right now around some of the decisions that I need to make. We talked about the part of me that plays the role of protector and follows fear as a way of protecting me from hurt and failure and rejection. We talked about accepting that protector side of me and acknowledging it without giving it an overly dominant and controlling voice in my life. We talked about whether I want to follow fear or not. We talked about a lot of things.

I went home feeling refreshed and hopeful. I still felt the uncertainty in my life, but I felt like I could look at that uncertainty and look at the fear and say, “This is true, I am scared, I am uncertain, but it’s not the whole story.” I can acknowledge these truths and feelings and also acknowledge a deeper truth… God is with me. When I got home I wanted to dance to this one particular song, but I didn’t have it anymore. So, I got on my old blog because I knew I’d written about the song once. I started searching for the post about the song but I couldn’t find it, instead I found this post I had written in 2003 about fear. It was so good to be reminded of these things I had written before…

As I looked back on my life (especially in the last few years) I realized that many of my decisions were made based on a paralyzing sense of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of not doing the “right thing”, fear of not living up to the expectations that others put on me or I put on myself, fear of life, fear of love, fear of not being in control, fear of being in control, basically just FEAR.
There are a lot of things that I’ve been realizing about fear:
Fear is really just lack of trust and faith in God. If I really trusted the goodness, love, mercy and grace of my God and Savior, how could I fear? If I really believed fully His sweet Words then how could I fear? If I really had faith that He walks beside me and loves me how could I fear?
The fact of the matter is, though, that too often I don’t trust, I don’t believe, and I don’t have faith – instead, I choose to try to control my own life, and fear every turn in the road because I know I can’t really control it. Fear clutches at my soul and attempts to strangle life and freedom from me. And it is only through surrendering all to God and finally coming before Him with open hands choosing to trust in His goodness that the grip of fear begins to be loosed and I can begin again to dance in the fullness of life that He desires for me.
I can’t say I’ve even begun to live life without fear; I can’t say that fear no longer paralyzes me, but I can say that God is revealing to me His love – not by what is physically happening in my life – but by His cross and His Spirit which is at work in my life. As I realize more and more Christ’s deep love for me, I realize more and more the absurdity of my fear, and the grip of fear on my life, on my joy, on my freedom, on my love, is loosened more and more. I know that I no longer HAVE to fear the future, or failure, or disappointment, or hurt, or rejection, or whatever.
And now I think it really just comes down to “ok, Bethany, God has been faithful to you in the past – in your own recent past, He has walked beside you – In the distant past He has fought for you, died for you and in doing so given you life abundant – And in the future, which will one day out do all pasts before, He has promised you a hope, and life eternal. He has promised you that you will see Him face to face; that you will know Him even as you are known; that all tears, all hurt, all brokenness, and all fear will be erased and irrevocable joy will be yours eternally. With the blood that He poured out in the past, once and for all proving His love for you, He has given you LIFE, here and now, and in the age to come. Now, holding to that hope, holding to that perfect love, what do you have to fear?
Christ is giving you LIFE – so open your hands, and receive all that He has to offer. Open you heart and start dancing – you don’t have to fear that you’ll mess up, you have a wonderful dance partner, and He will eternally be holding you as you dance through the ages of time, and the beauties of experiences. Now will you trust Him?”
This is Christ’s call to me; this is His challenge… I will listen and try to respond and reorder my life accordingly. I choose this day who I’m going to serve, who I’m going to follow. I choose this day who I’m going to fear. Lord, I don’t want to fear my own junk any more – I want to fear You, and You alone. Show me your love more and more that I may know you truly and love you deeply. I hand over to You my life, my fears, my hopes, dreams, and desires, and I pray that you do with them as you will. Lord, I surrender! Help me to trust you more and more each day, that I may walk in confidence of your love instead of my own fear and doubt.

Lord, as I read these words again I acknowledge once again that I have let fear have too big a say in my life. I have followed fear instead of following you. Lord, I choose this day to turn. I choose this day to follow you and what you are calling me to instead of just blindly listening to fear. I am yours, Lord, lead me.

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany Stedman

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