Antidote to Anxiety (Five Minute Friday: NOW)

We live in an anxious world right now. And I am very familiar with anxiety. I have lived with it all of my life.

I was a shy unconfident child, afraid that I wouldn’t be loved if I wasn’t perfect (which of course I wasn’t). Panic attacks took hold in times of change – starting university, moving away to get married – and merged with hyperemesis gravidarum both times I was pregnant. And it’s been an integral part of every depressive episode I’ve had.

Yes, I know anxiety.

I think it will always be something I have a tendency towards. But over time, and especially recently, I’ve come a long way in learning to manage it. So here’s some of the things I’ve learned and maybe they’ll help you in coping with our current world crisis:

We think that the opposite of anxiety is peace or calm. But it’s not. The antidote to anxiety is trust.

The thing about anxiety is that it happens when we are shocked into realising that there are things we cannot control. And for some of us, control is what gives us our security. So it’s earthquakingly horrifying to discover this isn’t true. And against all our instincts not to fight against this, not to try and find something in the situation we can control.

So the first step is to remember Who is in control.

Now it’s one thing to realise that we are not in control, that we are not, in fact, God. But it’s another to move beyond this and feel ok about not being in control.

And that’s where trust comes in.

We have to know someone to trust them. When we are on a long journey, I can fall asleep with my husband driving – I know how good his driving is; I know he loves me and will do anything to look after me; I trust him with my life. That’s what we need with God.

So I have found the way to cope with anxiety is fourfold:

1. Acknowledge what is worrying or frightening me
2. Remember alongside all the things I am thankful for
3. List what this God who loves me and mine is like
4. Put my concerns in His hands

I usually do this by writing in my prayer journal. It seems to contain the worries that way and helps me see the real balance of good and bad in my life. Then it gives me evidence I can go back to later of Who God is. And then I picture placing whatever or whoever it is into God’s big hands. Sometimes during the day, if I start to feel overwhelmed, I simply pray ‘In Your hands, Lord.’

I’m not saying this is a lesson easily or fully learned. It takes frequent practice. But I’m working towards it becoming a habit.

I’ve found it’s also worth remembering that God’s version of being in control might not be ours. He sees a bigger picture that is beyond our vision. And His promise is not to take away difficulties but to walk through them with us.

But He loves us and His hands are big enough to hold the whole world. So let’s take our anxieties and use them to give us even more reasons to trust Him and love Him more.

Do ADJUST Your Set (Five Minute Friday)

We’re all having to do a lot of adjusting at the moment, aren’t we? Staying at home or working differently, changes to routine and priorities, finding other ways to communicate and spend our time. Not knowing how long this will be for.

To be honest, we’re not used to it.

In this digital world, we press a button and it’s done. Email sent. Photo shared. Channel changed.

Remember the old days? Old TV sets or radios? You turned a knob to switch it on, carefully twisted a dial to tune in to each channel, maybe even balanced precariously with an indoor aerial to catch the signal and get the clearest picture. The slightest inaccuracy in a twiddle too far or wobble in balance and all you got was fuzzy lines and static.

It feels like that is where we are now.

There’s no press button, instant adjustment to this new world of pandemic and precautions, restrictions and redefinition. The news, the guidelines keep changing, evolving like a virus itself – it’s hard to keep up.

So we keep adjusting that dial, fine tuning our actions and reactions to each new day’s new challenges, constantly learning new ways of living.

It’s hard work. Stressful. Exhausting. We’re not good at change. And here we are, forced to repeatedly change our ways.

But there is One Constant. One Who never changes. One Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And yet One Whose trademark is renewal and new starts.

One Who gives us His strength when we come to the end of our own. One Who shows us hope when we run out of our own. One Whose endless supply of love is available to sustain us and ours at all times, day and night.

One Who is only a prayer away – as quick as a press of a button. And Whose peace is there waiting for us if we adjust our dial to His frequency.

 

Times and TABLE (Five Minute Friday)

I remember the day we bought it.

Newly married, some relatives had ignored our gift list and rolled up a surprising amount of cash in a flower vase instead. So we headed to our first vintage shop and treated ourselves to a matching dresser, fiddle back chairs, and a glowing pine table.

Fast forward twenty five years to a larger house, the chairs and dresser are still an integral part of our dining room. But the table, battered by dinners and drawings, tantrums and homework, surpassed by the need to host more guests, lays dismantled at the back of the garage, buried by garden cushions and fitness equipment.

From time to time, my husband pleaded to get rid of it but I couldn’t bear to abandon the wedding wishes and memories etched into it, hoping at the back of my mind that there would come a time when it would come in useful again.

Today, turn your eyes two hundred miles westward and you’ll find a quaint kitchen diner in a 1930s cottage, perched on a hillside with harbour views. Sanded down and top waxed, legs painted a fashionable off white, the old table has found a new home where its proportions fit perfectly and it coordinates beautifully with mismatched pale wood bar stools and restored Ercol dining chairs.

Once more, it is at home.

In a world that celebrates Marie Kondo’s minimalism, there’s something to be said for a little bit of hoarding and holding on for future use, for repurposing and reimagining, for integrating old and new.

And I wonder if that can be true for us too?

Sometimes I feel like that table in the garage, battered and beauty lost, outstripped by something someone younger and more modern, purpose gone. Sometimes I’ve endured the harsh sanding away of the scars left by the damage life has brought me. Sometimes I’ve been forced into stillness to resoak in the goodness that had slowly leeched out of me, to gradually build up a new protective coat against the daily elements. Sometimes I’ve been brought to a fresh place to flourish in a life I hadn’t envisaged.

Renewal and resurrection – as true for tables as it is for us.

To Think of Others BEFORE Myself

PURPOSE

I think my life’s purpose is
To learn to love
And to learn to love well.

At first I only had to
Reflect and imitate the love shown me.

Then after some tentative steps
I gave myself in baptism to
The full immersion of my whole self
Given to another.

Now I practise the
Daily
Hourly
Minute by minute
Prioritising of others’ needs
Before my own.

It isn’t always easy
I don’t always feel like it
I frequently fail.

And yet this is my life’s purpose:
To learn to love
And to learn to love well.

I wrote this poem last year and I was pretty satisfied with it. But, reading it back now, while I’m still recovering from a period of depression, I realise the sentiment, and the theology is incomplete.

One of the reasons I have lacked resilience to deal with unexpected traumatic events has been that I have been increasingly running on empty. Putting others’ needs always above my own has gradually depleted my reserves until I ran out completely.

It’s a particularly easy trap for a Christian to fall into. We believe in service and unselfishness and sacrifice.

Were you a Brownie who learned the Brownie law:
‘Think of others before yourself and do a good deed every day’?

Or do you remember the acronym for finding joy as prioritising needs in in this order?
1. Jesus
2. Others
3. Yourself

My trouble was that by the time I had done my morning prayer time (Jesus), then worked beyond my designated hours without a break (Others), and looked after my family (more Others), there was no time, let alone energy, to do anything for Your/Myself.

I’ve been challenged to look at this differently.

What if J-O-Y is better viewed as a triangle than a list? With Jesus at the top, Yourself and Others on a level at the base?

The Message translation of Jesus’ reply about what the most important commandment is this:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’” (Matthew 22.37-8)

‘Love others as well as you love yourself’. Not better than you love yourself. Not before you love yourself. But as well as you love yourself.

How well can you love others if you don’t love yourself much?

One great reassurance I’ve had whilst being ill has been the frequent reminder that I am God’s child and He loves me very much. And that He loves me because of who I am to Him not what I do for Him. So if I want to be like Him, how can I not reflect His love for me? How can I not take good care of someone He loves so much?

My counsellor repeats that self-care is essential if I also want to care for others – I need to prioritise it and make space for it. Sometimes that means uncomfortable, unfamiliar choices: saying no, delegating to someone else.

But looking after myself, making time for what does me good – yoga, gardening, resting – plus working more slowly, in a more considered way – taking a few moments to think before automatically saying yes or offering help – these will all make me better at my job, better as a wife, mother and friend. It means I will have more energy to do what I am called to. It means I won’t deprive others of growth and success. It means I will set a healthy and realistic example.

Or, as RuPaul puts it:
“If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

Can I have an Amen?!

(Writing again this week from a prompt by Five Minute Friday https://fiveminutefriday.com/2020/02/27/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-before/ )

This Was Not What We Imagined

With my mind elsewhere today, I’m sharing a poem I wrote a while ago that I think fits this week’s Five Minute Friday prompt of RISK.  I love considering the parallels between our modern experience and Bible characters; it brings the characters closer, personalises them.

This was not what we imagined
This was not how we expected pregnancy to be
The timing all wrong
Me with my new job
And you before your wedding day
We had no preparation for the anguish and distress
My nonstop vomiting exacerbated by anxiety
Your risk of rejection and scandal driven disgrace
But we each had our Elizabeth
Our place and voice of refuge
And we thanked God for her

It was not the birth we hoped for either
No familiar faces surrounding us (except his)
Only the support of strangers
No security of homely surroundings
But unkind smells of disinfectant or dung in the darkness
I ached for a window in that long night
For a glimpse of the natural world outside
Of sky, of starlight
You had your Starlight
But did you get your glimpse outside
Of the universe on tiptoes outside your door?

When I needed help
God sent me a tall smiling doctor
With a voice to believe in
And an Alien faced midwife banshee shouting
God sent you men more used to delivering livestock
With a story of angel song
Still ringing in their ears
But your little lamb had already arrived

And after the excitement of announcing our boys’ arrivals
Telephone for me, celestial choirs for you
We found that first moment of stillness
Babe in our arms well sated
And we wondered
And pondered
God’s good guidance
And possible plans

 

SAMARITAN OR NOT?

The end of the week, the end of our journey, just our little hill to go. Storm Dennis continues to pour down on the windscreen and in rivulets down the tarmac as we squeeze carefully up the narrow twists and turns in first gear. It’s a bit more challenging than usual but manageable.

Or so we think.

At the steepest, tightest bend the headlights catch a woman on all fours and a man trying to lift her up. There’s no way round them so we have to stop. We consider getting out to help but attention quickly returns to the car as my handbrake is failing to hold it against the combined force of gradient and rain slicked road. I daren’t take my foot off the other brake. I can manage this hill forwards but there’s no way I can reverse safely down.

Eventually she staggers over to a small parking space and we struggle past, a slightly worrying burnt smell coming from my clutch. We think again about going back to help as we unload in front of the steps up to our house but, by the time, I come down from our own parking space further up the hill, others have gone to their aid.

 (Here’s the road in the daytime. At the top of the view is the sharp bend left where the woman fell and between the house and the blue and white fence is where we had to stop). 

The experience left me thinking about the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the viewpoint of the passers by.

I wonder what their reasons for avoiding helping were. Did they think the man by the road was drunk so not worthy of help? But is that a valid reason? Did they have others waiting at their destination, relying on them, so any delay by rescuing this man would have caused distress or harm to someone else who needed them?

It’s easy to cast the priest and Levite as simple villains, self righteous or afraid. And to assume that we would never behave like that because we know the lesson from this familiar story so well.

But human behaviour is rarely as straightforward as in a short story, even one told by Jesus. How do we balance the needs of more than one person who needs us at a time? Does God call us to be a neighbour to everyone? Or does He call us to particular needs and people?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’d love to hear your thoughts. But I am grateful for an experience that has made me confront a familiar parable from a different angle, even if I haven’t reached any conclusions yet.

This post was written as part of this week’s Five Minute Friday Link Up with the prompt ‘experience’. Find more here https://fiveminutefriday.com/2020/02/13/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-experience/

The Parable of the TALENTs

I wonder if God smiled to Himself at the first telling of the Parable of the Talents, knowing that the English translation of the word for money would have a second meaning? So, rather than consider how we manage our finances, we can’t help but hear the story in terms of what we do with our God given skills.

How do we invest and multiply our gifts? Or are we guilty of hiding and burying them? And do we realise that God wants us to grow what he has given us?

But how do we do that?

Well, I guess, first of all we need to recognise what we have been given. So it’s worth asking ourselves what has been put in our hands and laps. Is it time or finances? Is it a dining table or a spare room? Is it an aptitude for numbers or art? Is it a love of gardening or languages? Is it a joy in seeing others succeed or in the natural world?

As a young Christian, trying to work out my direction in life, I was given the wise advice to look at what I was good at and what I loved doing as a starting point. Even the parable talks about ‘each according to his ability’. God isn’t a spoilsport so go with your abilities and see where it takes you.

But to make the most of what God has given us, we need to invest it and invest in it. We need to put time and energy and discipline in. No one became a great musician or led church worship well without practising. Likewise, I can’t become more patient  without frequently forgiving other drivers or a good listener without giving my family my full attention when they talk. It’ll be hard at times but with continued application, taking the opportunities that come our way, our talents will grow.

Sometimes we can feel that we have few talents, few resources to invest. We think it’s only the great that really counts. But God doesn’t see size, fame, or significance as we do. He is a God who loves small things, seeing such significance and potential in them. He loves a widow’s last pennies, mustard seeds, and a boy’s packed lunch. He loves a child’s pocket money donation to charity, a prayer said, a cup of tea made with care.

He takes our small investments and honours our attempts to use them in His service. And then He multiplies them. Seeds grow into vast trees giving shelter to a range of wildlife. A couple of fish sandwiches more than feed an enormous crowd. The exhaustion and pain of caring for a loved one with dementia turns into a precious gift and memory. A few encouraging words act as someone’s  lifeline.

We don’t always see such results. But God does. And when He sees us making the most of the talents He has given us, that definitely makes Him smile.

Joining in again with the fabulous Five Minute Friday community on this week’s prompt of TALENT. Find more here: https://fiveminutefriday.com/2020/02/06/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-talent/

LIFE in All Its Fullness

2019 wasn’t an easy year for me. Illness, depression, disappointment have blanketed out much of my good memories from it. But if I search hard enough, there were bright spots too: trips to Cornwall, family celebrations, renewal in our garden, progress in my writing. It reminds me of something Martin Luther King said:

‘But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars’.

That light may be far off but the darkness makes you appreciate it more. And, to be honest, during my time off work, I feel that, strangely, I have learned and gained so much, as if pain has proved to be an uncomfortable but rich fertiliser for growth.
It’s made me think about that statement Jesus made:

“I came to give you life – life in all its fullness.”  (John ch 10 v 10)

When life goes wrong, our (or certainly my) natural reaction is to complain about the unfairness of it. It’s as if we think the norm to be happiness and straightforward progression in life, not just as an expectation but as a right. So when something dreadful happens it comes as a shock and an affront to us.

But if we look around us, some form of tragedy comes to everyone. A job loss. A relationship breakdown. Illness. Death.

Now I’m not trying to minimise pain or grief or trauma. But what if ‘life in all its fullness’ includes the mix of ups and downs? What if there are lessons to be learned and riches to be found as much in our difficulties as our successes? What if our journey in life is meant to go through both hills and valleys? And, rather than stamping our foot like an angry child against it, what would acceptance of both positive and negative look like?

Thinking about this reminds me of Michael Henchard compared with Donald Fairfax in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Or contrast Jean Valjean and Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It is the height and depth of their experiences and emotions that give Henchard and Valjean the richer lives, unlike Fairfax and Javert, who live respectably but emotionally stunted without empathy for others. Of course, Valjean experiences redemption that forever redefines him and enriches his life.

Perhaps that’s the secret to experiencing ‘life in all its fullness’ – allowing God to constantly remake us and enlarge us, accepting all joys and pains as His gifts whilst looking for the blessing in both, and walking hand in hand with Him through the hills and valleys, appreciating the view from both.

Joining the weekly Five Minute Friday community writing from a shared prompt word. Jpin the party here: https://fresh.inlinkz.com/party/07330876dfa144f08a472aabe52c4e02.

A SACRIFICE of Praise (Five Minute Friday)

I wake to the first real winter’s morning of the season. Frost coats lawn, cars, and the curls of the corkscrew hazel and, like its cousin snow, muffles all Sunday sounds. But on the other sheltered side of the house, low light goldens the fences and new green growth continues its advancement.

Mint leaves multiply on what seemed previously dead stems. Palest pink blooms dot the edges of heather. Bulb shoots cut through the covering leaf mulch in unexpected places, having successfully evaded hungry squirrels.

A background hum of distant traffic and even more distant planes is interspersed by voluntaries of birdsong as golden as the light. A wood pigeon steadily grubbing its way along one flowerbed reminds me of yesterday’s avian visitors: a colour blocked magpie, a listening blackbird, familiar robin, and camouflaged treecreeper.

In such a setting, it’s easy for a heart to fill and overflow with praise for the Creator. Words seem superfluous as Nature itself gives grateful voice to the Great Gardener.
But it’s not always so easy or spontaneous.

Sometimes praise is a discipline or a sacrifice.

I’ve written before about how I am a natural pessimist, primarily seeing misspellings, faults, and mistakes before successes, kindnesses and blessings. During my most recent episode of depression, I’ve got into the habit of keeping a list of gratitudes in my prayer journal. And I’m learning (again) about the God who stays in the summer and the winter, the dark and the light, the panic and the calm.

Praise doesn’t come naturally. It’s an effort, a sacrifice for me.

But praise isn’t a case of ignoring the difficulties and pain and blithely singing with optimism instead. It’s about weighing the full range of evidence, holding the progress and the retreats together in my hands, acknowledging balance and subtleties. It’s about recognising the blacks and the whites and the greys, the shade that accentuates the highlights, the spatter and speckles, the spots and stripes, the whole pied beauty of life and emotions. Or, to borrow Gerard Manley Hopkins’s words further:

‘Glory be to God for dappled things’.

And even when few or no bright spots appear in the blackness. Even when that fog of fear descends and blinds me. Even when it doesn’t feel like He is there. That is the time to make a sacrifice of praise. To remember Who God is – my Father, my Friend, my Defender, my Counsellor, my Rescuer, my Finder. To turn my focus, even if just for a moment, from my circumstances to His character. To sound one blast of defiance against whatever holds me down. To stake an honest claim of:

‘I don’t know why this is happening and I hate it. But be God and show me, show the world, who You are and what You can do.’

Praise can be contrary to all our inclinations. Praise can be nothing but a dogged decision. Praise can be a giving up of giving in, of hopelessness, of anxiety and fear. Praise can be a sacrifice.

So let’s be courageous, bloody-minded. Let’s try it. And see how God responds.

COFFEE CANTATA (Five Minute Friday ‘Full’)

It’s official: I am addicted to caffeine. To be more specific, I can’t get going without that first morning mug of warm, waking, pulse pumping, real coffee. Well, if I’m being totally honest, those first mugs plural.

And it has to be real coffee, not instant. Just as a wine lover relishes the specific flavours of different grape varieties, so I love picking out the uniqueness of coffee beans from different parts of the world. My favourites tend to be African coffees with their fruity citrussy hints, especially the rarer Rwandan beans that bring back great memories of living there.

I also have preferences about which mug I like to drink out of. Somehow it tastes better out of a high quality receptacle with a beautiful design. Sadly one of these, Royal Worcester china with bold poppies against purple, has developed a crack inside and now leaks so I can’t use it anymore.

Sometimes, oftentimes, I think I’m like that mug.

I leak.

I leak energy.

I leak resilience.

I leak hope.

I leak faith.

I leak…everything.

And it can feel like constant effort to keep asking God to top me up. Like the family laundry basket that never stays empty for long, it can feel like a constant battle to keep on top of. Sometimes it can feel like a losing battle.

But as I poured my coffee this morning, I realised I might have this metaphor wrong.
I’m not the leaking cup. I’m the coffee pot.

I’m the coffee pot that pours out energy, hope, encouragement, faith into tasks and people, my own levels depleting as I do so. I’m the coffee pot that, even though it’s a thermos, gradually loses heat over time by a natural process of conduction.

So if I’m the coffee pot, God is the mains water supply, the beans that provide the flavour, as well as the filter machine and the electricity that combine these into something steaming and delicious to give both the coffee pot its purpose and a boost to all that need it.

My husband I never get by on just one pot of coffee each day. We need a fresh refill – or more on a hard to keep going day.

And I need refilling, maybe not so much because I am leaky and broken and somehow insufficient, but because fulfilling my purpose, pouring myself out, naturally depletes me. It’s a cycle: filling, pouring, cleaning, refilling.

Being full and ready to go is ok. So is running low. We can’t be full all the time. Needing to be refilled is how it’s meant to be.