Friday, November 4, 2016

Learning to Listen

Panic. Dread. Unprecedented Fear. These emotions describe the turmoil in our car just moments before Jorjanne's first driving lesson.After a quick prayer, I gently instructed her on keeping it between the lines, knowing when to brake and when to speed up. As I did these feelings slowly began to dissipate. Peace and calm gradually filled the space once filled with anxiety and worry.

As I've reflected on our time together in the car I realized that in order for Jorjanne to focus on driving we had to tune out the distractions (turn off cell phones and radio). She listened intently to my voice and worked diligently to obey the commands given to her.

God wants us to do the same in daily lives. Too often distractions drown out his still, small voice until we are consumed with doing what the world deems important, and our thoughts become consumed with worry.

Henry Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest and psychologist, wrote "Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life."

Let me say that again. "Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life."

If this is true, how many of us are failing to live a spiritual life? Why is it that so many of us avoid getting alone and being still before the Lord? I believe the answer lies in our own inability to stop our thoughts from wandering. 

I don't know about you, but when I get quiet my mind starts to race. I think about my to-do list and have to fight the urge to not "do something." If I am quiet long enough anxieties, fears, hurtful memories, anger, and pain threaten to consume me. Uncomfortable with these feelings, I want to stop this "inner chat" and resume my life of busyness. "We are surrounded by so much outer noise that it is hard to truly hear our God when he is speaking to us."

This is the opposite of what God calls us to do. We are to be still before the Lord. It is only when we allow these thoughts to permeate us, that God is able to counter our hurts and fears with the peace that surpasses understanding. Slowly the Holy Spirit does a healing work in the deep recesses of our heart and soul.

One of my professors in seminary required that we spend 3 hours alone with the Lord. Honestly, I dreaded this assignment and thought it was a waste of time. So out of obligation, I gathered my Bible, a hymnal, a journal and my guitar and headed for the state park. In the beginning there was a lot of awkwardness. My mind wandered, and I would fight to bring it back to the Word. As I disciplined myself to be still, I experienced one of the sweetest, most intimate times with the Lord that I've ever had. I left that park different than I arrived. I left with contentment, peace and joy even though my life circumstances remained the same.

Nouwen stated it this way. "Our hope is not based on something that will happen after our sufferings are over, but on the real presence of God's healing Spirit in the midst of these sufferings."

Spending 3 hours alone with God daily is not realistic for most of us. The point of this blog is to encourage you to find a starting point for solitude. Consider scheduling time in your calendar for solitude and don't let anything change that appointment. Get up early on Sundays and spend time preparing your heart for worship -- maybe even go to the Church and find a quiet place to pray and listen.

Solitude is not easy. It is awkward at first, but it has the potential to radically sanctify us and make us more like Christ. If Jesus was always intently listening to the Father, how much more do we need to do so?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Venting on Social Media

You've seen it. Someone is upset and they use the internet to "air out" their frustrations with someone else. College students complain about roommates. Individuals air the family's dirty laundry on Facebook, seeking to shame each other. Ex's use Instagram to denigrate the person who was once loved. Let's not even start with how bad this has gotten in political posts.

I'm not sure when the shift began, but more and more people are using social media to vent their anger, frustrations, and disappointments with others. Why? What is the point? Do the people engaged in online bashing hope to gain sympathy from others or are they attempting to bring shame and guilt to the alleged perpetrator -- or maybe it's a combination of the two.

I have to say, when I see this, rarely do I feel compassion or empathy for the person who has been "wronged," nor do I feel outrage at the accused. Instead, I often feel disappointed in the person who is posting derogatory comments about another person.

Slander is slander, and gossip is gossip -- whether in person or on social media. The scriptures compel us to go to the person we have a problem with and talk it out with them. If they refuse to listen, we are to take someone with us to talk to them. I wonder how many people who are lambasting others online have bothered to talk to the person with whom they are angry.

As I read people "venting" online, many of them do so because of unmet expectations. My husband often reminds me that expectations are premeditated resentments. We have to be careful not to expect others to read our minds, to know what to do, or even to do what is right. We can only control our actions, and not that of others. When others disappoint us, pointing it out to the world via social media may bring cause them pain, but it also smears our own reputation.

Now, as a disclaimer, I'm not writing this in response to any particular post, lest you think I am being passive aggressive and lashing out in my own subversive way. I've just noticed an increase in cyberbullying from adults. We talk about how this is wrong for our youth, but what exactly are we teaching them through our own social media posts?

If this post describes your past posts, I pray you will feel conviction and not condemnation or judgment. I pray that you will think twice before posting negative comments or posts about others. I admit, there have been numerous times when I was tempted to respond to posts with a tongue lashing of my own but I am doing my best to refrain.

The world of social media is a tangled web, but we can do our part to keep it classy.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Hope for a Weary Soul

Over the past few weeks I have been inundated with calls and meetings with people in crisis. Life is tough...there are days when we all wonder how we will persevere. In times of extreme stress, our brain releases cortisol in effort to help us regulate our stress response so that we can return to a state of homeostasis. In moderation, cortisol is a helpful hormone. The problem is when we live under constant duress, the body exerts excessive amounts of cortisol which can lead to high blood sugar, weight gain, gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular disease, and suppresses the immune system. I wish this list was as bad as it gets, but sadly, stress leads many to consider suicide as an option for dealing with their pain. (Just minutes before posting this I received word from a loved one of a suicide in her circle of friends). 

There are times when we are unable to eliminate stressors in our lives, so what's a person to do?  The answer lies in our ability to find healthy coping mechanisms to eliminate stress. We need to combat stress physically, mentally, and spiritually. 

Most of us know that aerobic exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate sleep all work to reduce the effects of stress. We can also combat stress symptoms by managing our mental health. Meditation calms a person physically and emotionally, leading to better mental health. In addition, research shows that practicing the spiritual disciplines helps to deter the harmful effects of stress. 

The next time you are overwhelmed with stress, take a time out. Get alone with the scriptures and meditate on God's Word. Some passages that have helped me in the past are:

"Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail."  Lamentations 3:22

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faithproduces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you."   James 1:2-5

"but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."  Isaiah 40:31

As well as Isaiah 43 and Hebrews 12

What are some passages that have ministered to your soul in dark times?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Seized with Remorse

When asked to discuss suicide in the Bible, most people point out Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus. Recently I began to meditate on Matthew 27 and tried to imagine what was going through Judas’ mind when he betrayed Jesus. Did he know the chief priests wanted to kill Jesus? Did he think they were going to give him a position in the church or community that would usher in the new kingdom? What exactly was he hoping for?

Whatever Judas thought, we know that he was deeply grieved by the actual events that followed his betrayal.

We, like Judas, rationalize our sin. We try to justify why it is ok to betray the ones we love (through gossip and deception) by convincing ourselves that it is really in their best interest. Rarely does the outcome bring our intended results.

When Judas heard that Jesus had been condemned, he was “seized with remorse.”  In other words, Judas was consumed with guilt. He tried to soothe his guilty conscience by giving back the silver, but the elders basically said, “Sorry man. The deed is done.”  In anguish and shame, Judas cried out, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

I wonder if the other disciples knew what Judas had done. As far as we know, he didn’t confess his sin to the other disciples. If he had, would they have forgiven him or would they have shunned him? Regardless, Judas felt more alone than ever before. His guilt was unbearable…he could not carry the burden of his sin.  Judas only saw one way out of the insufferable pain – death. “Then he went away and hanged himself.”

September is Suicide Prevention Month. Millions of people die by suicide each year. I have spoken with numerous women who lost their husband’s to suicide. Many of these men lived with guilt and regret (from affairs, poor financial decisions, deceit, hypocrisy, drug and alcohol abuse, and more). Sadly, these men believed that their sins were unforgiveable and they were consumed with guilt and shame, and lost all hope.

I want to clarify the difference between guilt and conviction. Conviction leads to repentance and change. Guilt continues to berate us and remind us of how terrible we are. The former brings restoration, while the latter breeds self-deprecation and shame.

Judas was seized with remorse; he was filled with regret. I’ve yet to meet anyone who survived a suicide attempt that didn’t live with some form of regret. Many letters left behind from those who died by suicide also express regret…there are times when the person doesn’t really want to die, but only want to live without the pain – whether physical or emotional.

I don’t think Judas wanted to die; when he left the temple, he threw the silver coins back into the temple. This was an act of desperation; he could no longer live with the knowledge of his betrayal. Death seemed his only out.

I’ve heard it said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. While this may be true, suicide merely shifts the pain of the one who dies to the ones left behind. When my first husband died, he transferred his pain to our family and friends as we sought to make sense of his death.

Georgia has the highest attempted suicide rate in the nation, while Delaware has the lowest (SAMSHA, 2009). What can we do to help individuals who are contemplating suicide?

First and foremost, we can listen. Research revealed that in 80% - 90% of all suicides, the person has told someone of their intent prior to taking their lives. These are often cries for help. Don’t take a threat lightly. For more information on how you can help someone, click here.

I want to leave you with the words of the Psalmist:

“Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, for the help of his presence.”  Psalm 42:5

No matter what you are going through, there is hope! Cling to that hope, and when you feel like you’ve lost hope, reach out to someone you love…sometimes hope may seem hidden, but it is always there. Better yet – God is always there; He is on the throne. He sees your pain. He cares. You can trust him.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Semicolon " ; "

Perhaps you have noticed the increase of tattoos, jewelry and clothing bearing the semicolon ( ; ). When writing, the semicolon is a symbol to pause. The author could have chosen to use a period, denoting a stopping point, but instead chooses to take a brief pause. Project semicolon started to raise awareness and support for suicide prevention. Those who have attempted suicide and have survivved are not defined by the attempt; their future remains unwritten.

While the past cannot be changed, we can pause and reflect, but then consciously choose to move forward. The semicolon has become a symbol of this resolve to move beyond the pain of the past and cling to hope for the future.

Yesterday I was meeting with a group of ladies in jail, and one of them said, "I just wish I had taken time to stop and think, before opening my mouth. I'm in here because I couldn't control my tongue." Can anyone relate? Maybe your words didn't lead to incarceration, but how many of us wish we had taken time to pause and think before speaking or doing something that led to more pain.

All of us have pains from the past that threaten to consume our present. We can choose to be the victim or to wallow in guilt OR we can choose to walk in freedom. May we take the message of the semicolon to heart. May we pause and reflect today on how we want our present and our future to look. We cannot control our circumstances, but we can control our response, and history has taught us that we control it much better when we take time to stop and think before we act.

So will you take 5 minutes to be still? Right now. Take 5 minutes and be quiet in the Lord's presence (Psalm 46:10), saying nothing -- just pausing for 5 minutes to listen. It will be awkward at first, because we live in a culture of noise and busyness. Stick with it, and you may be surprised by the result.

I leave you as I take time to personally pause, and be still before the Lord.