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

 

If you like this post please consider buying me a cup of tea (Suggested: $3 a cup)

Crying as a Spiritual Practice

Recently Christine Sine at Godspace asked the question “What is a Spiritual Practice?” This and another post “Reimagining our Spiritual Practices” lead to her inviting people to join her in talking and writing about Spiritual practices and ways that we connect with God in everyday life. I was intrigued by the thoughts she shared and have been thinking about what are ways that I personally sense God’s presence and engage in a spiritual practice?

I think I grew up thinking that the only real way to connect with God and the only real spiritual practices where reading your Bible and praying, maybe I would have also considered going to church (and listening to a sermon) and Bible study with other believers to be spiritual practices as well, but that was pretty much the extent of it. As I got a little older my repertoire of spiritual practices expanded just a little to include some other classic standards like solitude/silence and fasting. But, I think deep down I knew that I also encountered and experienced God in numerous other ways that didn’t fit into the box of traditional spiritual practices. And it wasn’t until I got even a bit older that I felt free enough to allow myself to engage in spiritual activities and spiritual practices that didn’t fit the normal model I’d grown up with.

Here’s how Christine Sine defines Spiritual practices for her: “for me a spiritual practice is any routine I perform on a regular basis that connects me more intimately with God and God’s purposes.

I like that. It got me thinking about what things in my regular, everyday kind of life connect me more intimately with God and God’s purposes. There are quite a few things that have come to mind and maybe I’ll write about some of the other one’s in the weeks to come, but for today I want to talk about crying.

For me crying is a spiritual practice, a spiritual experience that changes me and takes me closer to the heart of my Father. Allow me to explain and expand a little… To start with, understand that I’m not really the type who cries at the drop of a hat. You have to be a pretty close friend to have seen me cry as I usually only cry around people I feel really comfortable with. But, I do cry fairly regularly and when I cry I really cry. It usually starts with some little trigger and then grows until I’m crying about everything that I possibly could cry about.

But, there’s something that almost always happens at some point during my crying which I’m not sure is normal or not, maybe it shows my own weakness of faith, but almost always at some point my crying escalates and get’s turned on God. Suddenly it isn’t just about whatever it is I’m crying about, suddenly it’s about me and God and all my insecurities in my relationship with God. Suddenly, all of my doubt, distrust and fear, and all of my anger and accusations come out to play. Suddenly I’m face to face with all my ugliness, all the ugly deep thoughts and feelings I have towards God. Suddenly my sense of God’s sovereignty comes into play and it’s all His fault. Sometimes this moment leads to more tears and sadness, sometimes it leads to guilt and my disappointment in myself for my own distrust of God (which also leads to more tears), sometimes it leads to anger and outright yelling at God (again more tears).

The answer to these moments is always silence. In these moments God has never once defended himself. He hasn’t defended himself through someone else who was with me, or through bringing to mind scripture that I know, or in any other way. It’s always silence. But, I can feel him there, sometimes it’s so heavy that I feel like he’s standing right in front of me just silently looking at me, absorbing all of my accusations and confusion and doubt and just waiting.

But, just as surely as my crying sessions lead to that moment they also lead to another moment. Eventually I get to a place where I’ve cried it all out, where there is no fight left in me. I eventually get to a place where the sadness and anger and fear have run their course and I’m left feeling completely empty and vulnerable. My tantrum has run its course. My tears have done their job and have cleansed out of me all that ugliness and I sit there with it all exposed before me and God. There isn’t anywhere to hide anymore. It’s in this moment that God really comes close. Again he doesn’t answer my questions, ease my fears, or defend against my accusations. He just comes close and holds me in all my vulnerability. And in that moment I feel peace.

That is why crying is a spiritual practice for me. We all need moments like that. Moments that expose our ugliness. Moments that break down our defenses and leave us vulnerable. Moments that cleanse us and bring us to a new place of surrender to a God that we don’t understand. For me those moments happen when I really let myself fall apart and cry.

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany

If you like this post please consider buying me a cup of tea (Suggested: $3 a cup)

Back home in the blogosphere

Today I realized that I had over 1,000 unread blogs in my google reader. Ridiculous, I know. But, life has been such lately that not only has my blog writing suffered, but my blog reading has been pretty much none existent. But, after a few days of feeling ready to re-enter the blogosphere I think I can now officially say, yes, I’m back. Maybe not for good, and it might still be a little sporadic, but I miss blogging and reading blogs and I’m ready to come back to it. So, I marked all my unread blogs as read and I’m starting fresh, jumping back in starting today and looking forward to it. Smile.

So, expect more posts in the days and weeks to come, there are a few bouncing around in my head already. But, for now I leave you with this quote from the book He Leadeth Me by Walter J. Ciszek, S.J.:

“Now, with sudden and almost blinding clarity and simplicity, I realized I had been trying to do something with my own will and intellect that was at once too much and mostly all wrong. God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ in the situations in which I found myself; the situations themselves were his will for me. What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at his disposal. He was asking of me an act of total trust, allowing for no interference or restless striving on my part, no reservations, no exceptions, no areas where I could set conditions or seem to hesitate. He was asking a complete gift of self, nothing held back. It demanded absolute faith: faith in God’s existence, in his providence, in his concern for the minutest detail, in his power to sustain me, and in his love protecting me. It meant losing the last hidden doubt, the ultimate fear that God will not be there to bear you up. It was something like that awful eternity between anxiety and belief when a child first leans back and lets go of all support whatever – only to find that the water truly holds him up and he can float motionless and totally relaxed. Once understood, it seemed so simple. I was amazed it had taken me so long in terms of time and of suffering to learn this truth. Of course we believe that we depend on God, that his will sustains us in every moment of our life. But we are afraid to put it to the test. There remains deep down in each of us a little nagging doubt, a little knot of fear which we refuse to face or admit even to ourselves, that says, ‘Suppose it isn’t so.’ We are afraid to abandon ourselves totally into God’s hands for fear he will not catch us as we fall. It is the ultimate criterion, the final test of all faith and all belief, and it is present in each of us, lurking unvoiced in a closet of our mind we are afraid to open. It is not really a question of trust in god at all, for we want very much to trust him; it is really a question of our ultimate belief in his existence and his providence, and it demands the purest act of faith.”

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany Stedman

If you like this post please consider buying me a cup of tea (Suggested: $3 a cup)

Lent Begins with Listening to Where God is Leading…

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and today we enter fully into Lent. This year I am joining Christine Sine and many others in going through this Lenten Guide. Over the past few months I have been really excited about this. Bryan and I have been talking a lot about really entering into Lent and about using it as a time to cleanse our bodies, our lives and our hearts. We had been talking about some pretty extreme disciplines we wanted to try and engage in – including going Vegan for Lent. But, as Lent drew closer we started to hear a different message from God…

We started to hear God asking us to be present with where we are – to not try and make things happen – to accept that we can do nothing on our own and in our own strength and to open our hands and hearts to where he wants to lead us and the place in life that he has given us right now.

Over the past little bit I have been thinking a lot about this verse from John 15:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

The question, “What does it mean to remain in Christ?” has been circling in my head a lot lately. I can’t say that I’ve figured it out – I haven’t. But, I think that one part of it is to rest in trust and allow him to work instead of trying to force things myself. I realize that I do a lot in my own strength and power. I like being in control. I don’t like trusting others, and I especially don’t like trusting God. But, that’s exactly what I feel like He’s calling me to right now. He keeps reminding me that apart from him I can do nothing.

In the past few months God has slowly taken away a lot of security from my husband and I. He has slowly lead us to a place in various areas of our lives where we’ve had to trust him, and wait on him and where we haven’t been able to just do things in our own strength or timing. But, there were still things I was holding on to, I still felt like there were things that I could bring and offer and do. But, the past few weeks something has happened that I have no control over that I can’t do at all. And it’s made that phrase “apart from me you can do nothing” sink in for me in a new way. In this situation I can’t make anything happen, I can’t control the outcome, but there are small things that I can do to help create a fertile environment for God to work and I think it’s given me a picture of how God wants to work with me in other areas of my life. He wants me to stop grasping for the outcomes that I want, stop trying to control things and instead just remain with him, dwell with him and in doing so create a fertile environment for him to move and work and lead me on this journey.

The call of Lent for me this year is a call to let go, to stop striving, to trust and lean back into God’s open arms with reckless abandon. It is a call to remain in him and dwell intimately with him. It is a call to let go of my nagging doubt and distrust and to fall fully into Christ. It is a call to stop striving and fully recognize that it is only in Him that I move and breathe and have my being and apart from him I can do nothing.

That is what I feel God is calling me to this Lent. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like, but I want to follow.

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany Stedman

If you like this post please consider buying me a cup of tea (Suggested: $3 a cup)

The Yamas and Niyamas

This morning was the yoga and prayer time that I have been doing with a few ladies and today was the first time since I started doing it back at the end of July that no one showed up. Considering that it’s been a pretty small group of regulars it’s actually pretty surprising that we have been able to do it every week for so long without this happening earlier. So, my morning was very different then I had expected but it gave me a great opportunity to put into practice some of the yamas and niyamas that I learned about in my yoga classes this weekend.

The yamas are basically guidelines and principles about how we should interact and relate to the external world. They are guidelines for how to act in society and in relation to other people. The five yamas are: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness, or non-lying), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (moderation), and aparigraha (non-grasping, non-greed, or non-attachment). I think of these as being sort of like a shortened yogic version of the 10 commandments. The niyamas are guidelines and principles for the inner world, and how we should relate to and treat ourselves. The five niyamas are: santosa (contentment), tapas (discipline), svadhyaya (self-study, or study of sacred texts), sauca (cleanliness, or purity), and Isvarapranidhana (surrender to the divine).

When I got up this morning I prayed that God would bring just the right people this morning and that whoever needed to be here would be here and whoever needed to be somewhere else would be somewhere else. When no one showed up I really believed that God was answering that prayer. In doing this I was practicing Isvarapranidhana, surrender to the divine. Instead of grasping for how I wanted the morning to be or being attached to my own way I let go and surrendered to God’s will for the day. And sure enough the morning didn’t go the way that I would have had it go and I could have grasped and been attached to my idea of how the morning should go, but there would have been very little point in that and it would have just made me miserable. Instead, I said, ok, this is exactly how this day is suppose to be, I trust that I am exactly where I am suppose to be and that everyone else is as well and I let go of my ideas about how things should be and accepted the present moment for what it was, not what I had hoped it would be or imagined it was. In doing so I was practicing aparigraha, non-attachment, and also practicing satya, truthfulness, and santosa, contentment.

By surrendering to God and whatever He had for my day, by letting go of my attachment to control and my grasping for the morning to be a certain way, by acknowledging and seeing the morning for what it was in truth instead of what I might have imagined it to be (a failure), and by being content in what God had brought me that day even if it looked different from what I had wanted, I was able to have a truly wonderful morning of unexpected solitude.

I like the yamas and niyamas, they are often much more difficult to put into practice then I found them to be this morning, but I think they are all guidelines and principles that are worth following. Hope you enjoyed learning a little about them and hearing a little about how I put them to practice today. Peace be with you each this day.

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany Stedman

If you like this post please consider buying me a cup of tea (Suggested: $3 a cup)