Tag Archives: Personal Growth

Overcoming Anxiety with Gratitude


Matthew 6:25-33

During the Thanksgiving season, which at least on social media begins on November 1, we often get to hear what so many people are thankful for. We get a daily dose of thankful words from our Facebook friends with hashtags like #NoticingGrace. The “Living” or “Religion” sections of our newspapers and online news services have opinion pieces on thankfulness – “20 Reasons to be Thankful” “How to be Thankful Around Your Disagreeable Family Members” “Being Thankful in a Time of Terror” “How Being Thankful is Good for Our Bodies”…and the list goes on.

Thinking about thankfulness has made me wonder what exactly we are overcoming with our gratitude. Unlike the authors who are excited that gratitude lowers blood pressure (which, yes, is fantastic), I was more curious about what gratitude, and not just the November short-term version, does for our souls. What is it about our human struggle that thankfulness helps?

The answer is: probably a lot of things. But one in particular came to my mind that I think influences much of our spiritual and bodily lives, one I struggle with daily – Anxiety.

I read the Matthew passage above and very much want to be consistently non-anxious, knowing how much God provides and is among us. I want to be able to trust that much. Yet, life throws curveballs: I am busy, I get overwhelmed, tragic and frustrating things happen. And off goes any hope of that non-anxious existence.

Theologian Paul Tillich says that a major function of being human is our tendency toward anxiety. And he says it is not just about anxiety given to us by life’s circumstances, but that our very existence is anxious about its being. In his book The Courage to Be, Tillich tells us that anxiety is a deeply-rooted problem of humanity grounded in our fear of nonbeing – that we have an end. This leads to feelings of meaninglessness and emptiness. We are inherently worried creatures.

But there is hope.

Being anxious is not the end game, and there are ways to accept our anxieties of nonbeing while simultaneously moving toward fully being. But how do we do this?

Jesuit theologian Anthony de Mello said, “You sanctify whatever you are grateful for.” In other words, cultivate that which is not anxious; be thankful. By doing this, you make holy and important those things instead of your anxiety.[1]

This kind of gratitude does not come easily, though, especially when we are already in the throes of anxiety. It likely will take small steps of movement toward gratitude before we begin to slowly turn away from our worry. Taking moments every day (and not just every day in November) to be thankful for the small things – birds, lilies of the field, fluffy dogs, sunshine – can provide little movements toward a wholeness of being that keeps us from focusing our anxiety of nonbeing.

Jesus wants us to take time to notice what is right here in our midst. He calls us to believe that God is among us in everything, providing daily reminders of our relationship to God’s hope in the small parts of life that provide us joy and hope. By being thankful for these small things, we take steps toward wholeness that decrease the anxiety in our souls and make living a more joyous undertaking.

Being thankful is the antidote to our worry – by placing our attention on that which is holy and wonderful, we look away from that which we cannot change. By seeing the birds, lilies, food to eat, homes to live in, friends and family – we look away from the sickness, struggle, depression, and death.

May we be a grateful people, able to heal our souls of anxiety through the grace of gratitude, this season and all year round!

[1] Note that I and others are fully aware of the legitimate need for medical and therapeutic intervention for anxiety and depressive disorders that keep us from being able to find gratefulness – but once someone is able to be grateful again, perhaps after talk therapy or medication, the advice to find small moments of gratitude to move toward fullness of being still applies as we tend to our souls.

[Cross-posted from RRCB Pastor’s Blog: http://www.rrcb.org/2015/11/overcoming-anxiety-with-gratitude/]

An Advent Devotion

A devotion I wrote for FBC Chattanooga’s Advent Devotion book. Many thanks to Jeanie & David Gushee for their compliation of Christian prayers  (Yours Is the Day, Lord, Yours Is the Night), which added so much to this devotion.

Advent Devotion: Worship

John 1:1-5

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 4 What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There is much talk about light and hope during Advent season. We all try desperately to focus not on ourselves, but on the light that Jesus, the Word made Flesh, brought to earth when he was born. But in the midst of millions of tiny colored, sparkling lights, the days get shorter and colder…and darker. This time of year sees the most suicides and depression. This time of year can consume us with loneliness – whether through the loss of a loved one or simply a sense of loneliness when we feel alienated by bustle of the season.

What is so beautiful, I think, about the promise of the Light of the World is when it falls in our calendar – at the darkest time of year (and perhaps the darkest time of life). Holidays may bring loneliness or remind us of a bygone year of pain. We might have gotten divorced, lost a child, parent, or friend. We might have made poor decisions and be filled with regret. We might be spending our first Christmas alone. We might sob during the long, dark nights of December. Light and hope are the last things on our mind.

But this, I think, is when we can most find comfort in Advent worship. We don’t need to start out joyful – we come to the manger as we are: sad, lonely, hurting, depressed. And we find comfort, community, love, and acceptance. Jesus is the Prince of Peace because of the offering of love and community at his table. Christmas worship is as much about being joyful as it is offering the love of Christ to others to create joy in community and love during the darkest days of the year.

May this be our meditation and prayer during Advent’s dark days:

Come, true light. Come, life eternal.
Come, hidden mystery…Come, reality beyond all words.
Come, person beyond all understanding. Come, rejoicing without end.
Come, light that knows no evening.
Come, unfailing expectation of the saved.
Come, raising of the fallen. Come, resurrection of the dead.
Come, all-powerful, for unceasingly You create…
Come, for Your name fills our hearts with longing
and is ever on our lips…
Come, for You are Yourself the desire that is within me.
Come, the consolation of my humble soul.
Come, my joy, my endless delight.

– Symeon The New Theologian (949-1022)

Advice to my 15 year-old self

Today, a friend on Facebook posted a link to a simple, interesting article that encouraged an exercise I found helpful – writing a list of things you’d want your 15 year-old self to know – in celebration of the first annual International Day of the Girl (which was yesterday, October 11, 2012). Wisdom is something we gain through experience, and as we learn, we want to share that wisdom.

The article’s probably right, though – I would have ignored most of this advice and continued on my path, but I still found the exercise enlightening. This was a way for me to reflect on the kinds of things I would teach a daughter, a niece, a young girl friend.

Here’s my list:

  1. Being single is a gift, not a curse. Take a break. (Also, if you do date, choose that guy in math class your senior year). Also, don’t fret that you need to marry by a certain age. Be absolutely sure before you take the plunge (and don’t do it before age 25).
  2. Exercise is a good thing – keep doing it, and build strong muscles. Also, band is not exercise.
  3. Read more, write more, and if given the opportunity, go to college early – it’s SO much more fun than high school.
  4. Eat more vegetables. Learn to like new foods. You don’t want to learn how to eat at age 23 and 55 lbs overweight.
  5. Go to counseling regularly. Head off these dark feelings now – you’ll be much more centered and content with your life if you do. It doesn’t mean you’re crazy – it means you are passionate. You can channel that passion into positive things with the right tools. It’s worth the effort and money. Do it.
  6. Women can be strong leaders and ministers. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And yes, you have the capacity to be pastoral.
  7. Not everyone in the church is like THEM. There are wonderful communities of believers to be a part of. Don’t be afraid to go to different kinds of churches. And don’t be afraid to doubt and ask hard questions about faith and church and moral issues.
  8. You’re adorable and a catch. Don’t let any guy into your heart that tells you otherwise. If he tells you what to do, or ever scares you (even once), get out immediately. Long before marriage. Abuse is not just physical, and it is always damaging.
  9. You aren’t supermodel material – sorry, you’re short, and you’re skin is too preciously white and sensitive to tan regularly. You’ll also probably never be a famous singer. But you’re amazingly strong, beautiful, intelligent, and capable of much more than you think right now.
  10. Have fun. Not everything in life is worth worrying about. Dance and play and never forget how to be vibrant and silly.

So, how about you? What would you tell your 15 year-old self? What would you tell your daughter/niece/young girl friend (or son/nephew/young guy friend if you’re male)?

St. Benedict, Faith, & Ordinary Folks

Epiphanies 7/18/2012

Calm amidst the storm(s). Looking at some ways we can practice faith when everything else in life runs counter to it.

Tonight we are going to look at the life of St. Benedict of Nursia, a monk who lived many centuries ago, and take a few minutes to think about how his Rule can help guide our faith in profound ways today. We’re no monks, but we are Jesus-followers, and tonight we’re going to explore some tools that might just make our spiritual lives a little more vibrant – in spite of the obstacles in our lives.

*First, let’s think about what we know about Benedict. (Examples: monk, popular Rule of St. Benedict, early Christianity, humility, obedience, silence)

St. Benedict lived from about 480-550CE. His teaching “upholds the highest ideals of Christian love and asceticism in an uncompromising yet humane spirit…his Rule for Monasteries has become the most popular and commonly used rule in the West. In this remarkable little document, Benedict describes the monastery as a ‘school for the Lord’s service’ and proceeds to outline the contours of life in a monastic community characterized by balance and simplicity…he teaches the three foundational virtues of the monk: obedience, silence, and humility…[His rule] was acclaimed for its moderation,” [but also was] “unbending in its expectation that each monk would be present at all community gatherings; and his emphasis on the exercises of prayer …illustrates Benedict’s conviction that the thoughts of the monk must at all times be occupied with God.” (Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, 65).

“Rather than extreme asceticism, what the Rule seeks is a wise ordering of the monastic life, with strict discipline, but without undue harshness.” Additionally, Benedict’s rule required stability – monks did not move or leave without being told to, and that commitment has made the institution greatly relevant in times of chaos. The Rule also had specific ways to deal with the errant monks, allowing for forgiveness and reconciliation. For, as Justo Gonzalez says, “the Rule is not written for venerable saints, such as the heroes of the desert, but for fallible human beings. This may have been the secret to its success.” (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I, 279).

Now, we all know that most Christians are not called to be monastics. But, that’s not to say we can’t learn from, and even use, the practices of our monastic brothers and sisters (forefathers and foremothers). Benedict called for both spiritual and physical discipline. Discipline – not a word we often react well to.

*What does discipline mean to you? Are there disciplines (mental, physical, spiritual) you already practice?

Many of us do actually practice disciplines – whether it exercise in the form of gardening or walking dogs; whether it’s night time prayers or early morning Bible studies; whether it’s keeping a weekly Sabbath (rest day). The happiest and most well-adjusted people have disciplines in their lives. And our disciplines need not be unduly harsh (you don’t have to forever give up ice cream or wine – just do it in moderation. You don’t have to run marathons – just walk and jog enough to stay healthy. You don’t have to pray every Daily Office – just make time for God every day). And who knows, once you start a discipline, you might just like it enough to expand it. As our disciplines become part of our lives, they become higher priorities – maybe higher than, say, our favorite TV drama or that extra hour of sleep.

Now, to be fair to you all – I am coming to you as a fairly undisciplined learner myself. Tonight let’s learn together. I’ve brought you a few thoughts on Benedict from a mother and blogger who loves all things Benedict. Let’s make this guy modern and outside the monastery walls. What can “the rest of us” do when we don’t cloister? This mom has some thoughts.

First, let me read you a letter she wrote to Benedict just last week, on his feast day: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/michaboyett/2012/07/a-letter-to-st-benedict-on-his-feast-day/

Now, I want you to break into 3-4 groups. Each group will get an article about Practicing Benedict. I want you to read through it, and when you’re done reading, I want you to list 5 ways you can incorporate this Benedictine idea into your daily lives. When we come back together, we will discuss some of what we all came up with.

What did you find most intriguing about this part of the Rule and Micha’s thoughts on it? How can you apply it in your daily life?

We’ll begin with Group 1, Nothing Harsh, There’s Enough Time. 2, Silence. 3, Prayer and Rising Immediately. 4, Hospitality.

Perhaps there is enough time – when our lives are centered properly. Perhaps we can not only fit in prayer, but make prayer central to our daily lives. Too often, I hear of Christians trying to do a 5AM Bible study every day when their job keeps them up until midnight. Or I hear of people struggling to find silence in their lives while scheduling themselves to death. But I think Benedict’s right: there is enough time. There always has been. We just have to find and use discipline to realize it.

Benedict was reasonable (okay, well, at least for a monk!). We need to also be reasonable. We need to know our limits, prioritize sleep, not overdo the scheduling, and make God and relationships the priorities in our life. We are not defined by what or how much we do. We are who we are because God loves us so much and puts such priority on God’s children.

There’s no need for undue harshness, but there is a need for discipline. I pray we take tools, like those Benedict provides for us, and begin to re-order our lives around what should already be central: God’s love for us and our response to it.

Hope for the Faithless and the Doubtful

Notes from Epiphanies, 5-9-12

We worked in small groups to talk about faith, doubt, and how we integrate these in our Christian communities.

Question 1: When you think about faith, what does it look like? Is it a steady flow of understanding/feeling? Or is it an ever-changing and evolving process?

Describe faith. Is it Belief? Knowledge?

Dictionary Definition of Belief: “Mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact, as true, on the ground of authority or evidence; assent of the mind to a statement, or to the truth of a fact beyond observation, on the testimony of another, or to a fact or truth on the evidence of consciousness; the mental condition involved in this assent.”

Is it more than that?

Lauren Winner, in her book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis says this: “Faith…meant more than intellectual assent to a set of doctrines. It was a commitment of the whole self, a hope and trust that, if genuine, ought to be the foundation of an entire way of life and vision of the world.”

“On any given morning, I might not be able to list for you the facts I know about God. But I can tell you what I wish to commit myself to, what I want for the foundation of my life, how I want to see.”

Question 2: What do we do when we are personally confronted with unbelief?

Lord, I believe; help me with my unbelief!

Read this article and think about how faith and doubt are interwoven in our lives:


Perhaps faith is more like a promise (a quote, also from Still): “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.”

In small groups, we discussed a time in our own life when doubts overcame faith (much like the story above, we all had moments of severe doubt). We concluded that our doubts are as much a part of our faith journeys as our moments of strength and unwavering dedication.

Question 3: If, as we have seen and read and heard, doubt is simply a part of the faith journey, how can we help those in our midst who are “in the middle of things”?

Lauren Winner Calls this our “Mid-Faith Crisis” as Christians – she means there is a point at which we are no longer giddy about our new faith and eager to learn more. But neither are we at a point of peace and wisdom.

“The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone. And yet in those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know. On the days when I think I have a fighting chance at redemption, at change, I understand it to be these words and these rituals and these people who will change me. Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.”

Questions to ponder:

  1. What brought you to mid-faith? Was it a crisis? Was it multiple crises? Was it just a “whole life of straight-forward churchgoing” or a life of wandering?
  2. What has church done to help you through the middle?
  3. How can you help others in the middle?

Perhaps the simple answer is that by realizing we all have doubts in the midst of faith and we also have faith in the midst of doubt, we move closer to understanding and supporting our fellow humanity in their wrestle with the Divine and what it means to be faithful, even when it seems impossible. We then know we have to take the time to understand that faith has steps, and one cannot move from step to step without moments of deep turmoil and struggle. [Nerd check: A good (yet a bit tedious) book on this is James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, which incorporates both psychology and theology to discuss the “stages” we go through in our faith].

Many thinkers before us have helped us better understand the intricacies of faith and doubt and how they both nurture and deliver us. God can and does meet and love all of us whether we are new, eager Christians, in the middle of a Mid-Faith Crisis, or we have moved to a deeper, more profound faith – and that is a promise worth celebrating!

I hope we all can avoid the pitfalls of describing the doubtful as weak or faithless and instead celebrate their struggle to understand and walk alongside them as we seek to understand the nature of God and how we should live as Jesus did – together.

On Faith, Doubt, and Ministry

Maybe this is a way of inhabiting faith that is, indeed, faithful; that is generative. Maybe God has given some people belief like a pier, to stand on (and God has given those people’s steadiness to the church, to me, as a reminder, as an aid), and maybe God has given other something else: maybe God has given to some this humming sense that we know nothing, this belief and disbelief a hundred times an hour, this training in nimbleness (and maybe that is a gift to the church, too).” – Lauren F. Winner, Still

“On subjects of which we know nothing, or should I say Beings…we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.” –Emily Dickinson

I have recently been reflecting on my particular brand of faith. This is not some treatise on denominational or theological boundaries, but rather, a reflection on who I am becoming each day I attempt to walk this journey with Christ.

Some days I wonder if I’m cut out for Christianity, much less clergy. But then I realize yet again that we are all works in progress. People of the cloth are nothing more than continuously forgiven sinners called to serve others. We are generally given little status in the public arena (except of course where it benefits those in power – when it ceases to be a calling and can stray into arrogance – see http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/7234/9/). But we are to be considered in church to be the teachers, the leaders, the bridge between the faithful and God. That is more than a high calling – that is a scary feat.

Most often, when I “wear my minister hat,” I feel under-qualified. That is to say, Yes: I finished 3 years of seminary and finished them well. Yes, I passed an ordination council and was ordained by my local congregation. Yes, I have debated the intricacies of the Trinity, Atonement, Ethics, Hebrew, Greek, Old & New Testament. And yet – once the robe is on or the crowd suddenly realizes I have a title, I feel like a small child wearing Mom’s dress, with shoes too big to fill.

But these lingering doubts about my own abilities have never outweighed the drive in my soul to bear witness to the goodness Christ has for others. Even when I am ready to toss the collar and hide on the back pew (if I come to the church at all), I feel lost when I am not helping others find their way in this maze of faith. My own doubt drives me to seek to find more in my faith. It does not serve to destroy anything – on the contrary, it is my doubt (my fears, my insecurities, my humility) that is my salvation.

1 Corinthians 2:1-7, 11

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory…For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.

I figure I’ll never be that “pier to stand on” Lauren Winner describes in the quote above. But the wax and wane of my belief is what pushes my boundaries, reminds me of who I am called to be, and forces me into a better place where I can more faithfully serve God’s people with me entire being – doubts and all.

Who I am; Why I Write

Okay, so I’m new to this blogging world. I’ve only been on Twitter for about a year, and through that I have learned that I love the blogosphere and everything it has to offer to a person who wants her voice heard: A place to speak her mind, a place to bear her soul, and most of all, a place to potentially make a scratch of a mark in the Kingdom of God.

So, here I am.

I have written gobs of academic papers. I have a C.V. prepared for PhD work. I have mentors who write books – all the time. But I have never been a good journaler. I never kept up with one, not even in middle school, when that kind of girly, lock-and-key personal journal stuff mattered. Not in seminary, when I probably could have used it for a difficult spiritual journey. Not at any time in all that marriage counseling or marital emotional abuse (again, really could have used it then). But, I never did.

Now that I am re-learning how to be me, however, I am also learning the power writing has in my life. When I face tough times in my relationships, when I need to get a thought out and bring it to my counselor, when I have strong views on issues –  these are the times I not only want to write; I need to. Desperately.

To become a better writer (and a more consistent one), and to generally better myself as a person/academic/minister, I have taken up reading a book a week for Lent.

This past week, I have been reading the book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner. Her honesty moves me. For once, I feel like the academic, ordained minister that I am has a soul-friend: someone who gets me. It’s suddenly okay for me to have doubts and still influence people, to be divorced and still godly, and to give life even when my life feels so taken away by both the misdeeds of others and my own failings. She gives me words for my confusion, my pain in this “middle” of my faith.

So, this is where I start: a place of both review and reflection on a new favorite book. I’ll take each part section by section, as things have touched my soul.

For my first post, I’ll start with her thoughts (and mine) on being divorced and a woman in ministry.

Her words: “Some days my mantra was I will stay in this marriage because I am a Christian and Christians stay, but other days, I thought: if the choices are Christianity or divorce then I will just have to embrace my secular humanism because I am not sure I believe any of this anymore and it is one thing to devote twenty minutes every morning to praying when you are not sure you believe anything anymore and it is another thing to organize your whole life around a marriage you don’t want to be in because a God who may or may not exist says let no man put asunder.” (Still, p.7)

This is the struggle of holding on, of giving oneself to a relationship where there is no longer any emotion, no longer any love. For her, this journey seems more an issue of unhappiness (we are not told her reasons for divorcing). For me, it was pretty clear-cut emotional abuse. But whatever the underlying cause, holding on to a dead marriage because people tell you it is sinful to leave is no way to live. It makes faith buckle under the strain of deep, emotional burdens.

I realized through this process we cannot fully understand a marriage unless we are one of two people in a marriage: man or wife. And no one but they can decide when a marriage is over. God calls us all to love, and when a child of God’s isn’t loved or cannot love anymore, perhaps it is time to leave the pain, experience the grief, and start a new chapter.

Winner: “And also because of the few jagged mean things good Christian people said to me, things I shouldn’t hold on to, but I do, like a friend into whose lap I poured all my misery said, Well, you know Lauren, if you leave your husband, you are leaving Jesus…”

I expected the very same reactions from my friends. After months of being sure I couldn’t sustain my marriage alone anymore, I left abruptly one night, surprised my parents at home with two packed suitcases, and left everyone to wonder why. I wanted to explain to them that I had good reasons. That I wasn’t just “giving up.” That I had put hours, weeks, years into finding a solution that wasn’t to be found. But I knew that for some people it would never matter. That for some, the only reason to leave would have to be outlined in Matthew, from the lips of Jesus, for it to be “good enough.” And still they’d want me to try harder. Painful as divorce always is, there is no reason to continue in a tortured relationship just to appease someone else’s deeply-held theological beliefs.

I knew I had tried all I could. And the marriage was still over. When I left, I felt the rush of relief, knowing that so much bad had finally ended. I also felt the pang of loss as I gradually moved my things from my home, split up my five dogs, and made space for myself in a house with already too many generations under one roof (my grandmother also lives with my parents and myself).

“Something a friend said to me, long before I left my husband: I don’t know if you will get divorced. I hope you don’t; I don’t know if you will. I do know that, if you do, two years later you will know some things about God that you don’t know now.”

Like Dr. Winner, I too, hope these words continue to come true. I know that one year after I decided to leave, these words are already true in many ways. I know so many new things, about God, about myself, and about what God can do with me and through me. And I have found moments, glimpses of peace in the presence of the Divine.

I am sure that no there won’t be a time where I feel completely at peace with the loss of a nearly decade-long relationship, the loss of my early twenties, or the loss of my self-esteem for seven long years. But with every new day, I embrace my grief anew. Instead of making me ill at ease or depressing me until I’m unrecognizable, that embrace empowers my very being.

Grief and I are new to each other – I had avoided grief in favor of making peace in my former relationship, hoping to never have to face grief’s grip. But inevitably we will all face grief. Mine was a deep pit of loss that I have since reclaimed as part of who I am. As grief and I walk hand-in-hand, I appreciate the world and its wonders that much more. I learn one more thing about the nature and person of God. I become a better friend, daughter, sister, girlfriend, minister, woman, person.