Thursday, January 25, 2018

Winter: A Season of Melancholy

You’re the God of seasons
I’m just in the winter
~Seasons by Hillsong Worship

Within Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4, we are reminded that, "To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven," and specifically, "A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance." We have a tendency to forget that life has an natural ebb and flow that brings various seasons into our lives. Not everyday is going to be sunshine and roses, but at the same time, not everyday is going to be dark and gloomy. Seasons are necessary for growth when it comes to crops and our spiritual lives.
If I'm to be honest, I'm currently in a season of melancholy. There is no particular cause, and it's very hard to describe to someone who hasn't dealt with this particular circumstance in their life, though I doubt dealing with some trust issues lately has very helpful. In essence, in my attempt to avoid a depression, I ended up over compensating into anxiety, and out of desperation to get that to stop, I believe I shutdown emotionally as a means of self preservation. Charles Spurgeon himself wrote about his own experiences with depression stating, "There is a kind of mental darkness in which you are disturbed, perplexed, worried, troubled - not, perhaps, about anything tangible." It's very much like what Zach Eswibe wrote in his book Spurgeon's Sorrows: "We can finally go numb. It is as if we shut down and feel so much that we feel nothing at all." And to quote Switchfoot, "You want peace but there's war in your head," or more precisely, "I get caught chasing my own illusions. I get so lost in these confusions. I keep on looking for my own solutions." Needless to say, I have become well acquainted with Psalm 42:11, which states, "Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.
I'm sure there are some of you out there who are not well acquainted with depression, anxiety, or melancholy who might ask why I can't just "snap out of it." And I know other well meaning people who would suggest I pray, focus on God as my source of joy, read Scripture, or listen to some uplifting music or sermons. Guess what? I have, and I feel nothing. Like seriously, nothing. I knew this was definitely a problem when I was listening to I Will Be Undignified by Rend Collective and would tap my foot along to the music, but sensed absolutely no enthusiasm. I dare you to listen to that song and not want to just get up and dance, and please do, because I just can't force myself to right now. I exhaust myself daily trying to elicit the proper emotional responses to particular situations. I desire joy and long to feel something at all, whether happiness or sadness. I have my moments where I crack a smile, but that dissipates quickly. I listen to sermons on joy and totally understand and agree where the pastors are coming from, but can't feel. It's the weirdest thing ever, honestly.
Now I know this sounds like an awful experience, and I wouldn't wish it on anybody in my life, but it has been a learning experience for me. It's grounded me in Scripture and I have focused more on my relationship with God, rather than on my relationships with people. In the course of listening to one particular sermon yesterday, I felt rather convicted about my struggle for control in my life. It exposed my lack of trust in people and not thinking the best of them, but more importantly, it exposed my lack of trust in God, which is certainly sinful. He's the Creator of the universe and knows all of the particulars of my life, yet I am still foolish enough to think I know what's best for me. Absolutely ridiculous on my part. So, if you are reading this, please pray for me about this particular area of my life so that I may gain some humility. James 5:16 reminds us, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working."
While this current state of melancholy is not exactly what I would like to be dealing with right now, I know that God is using this season to shape me for the future. He knows the reasoning behind it, and that's all that really matters. I know He is still paying attention to me because I got a text from a friend telling me that I'm a blessing to her and others and I have gotten texts from people that I don't normally hear from. One was a picture of my friend's nephew wearing the lederhosen onesie I bought him in Germany and the other was from a friend who I used to do a Bible study with in college when he was going through a difficult time in his life. He texted to thank me for helping him through one of the most spiritually difficult times of his life and for being one of the driving forces to get him to where he is today. That was totally God giving me encouragement through this season and reminding me to not give up hope because He still has work to do through me. I will continue surviving each day for His sake. In the words of Romans 12:12, I will be, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfast in prayer." This is my season of patient endurance for the faith.

If all I know of harvest
Is that it’s worth my patience
Then if You’re not done working
God I’m not done waiting
You can see my promise
Even in the winter
Cause You’re the God of greatness
~Seasons by Hillsong Worship

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Seasons Are Necessary

We'll build new traditions in place of the old
'cause life without revision will silence our souls
~Snow by Sleeping At Last

For many along the eastern seaboard, it may not be officially winter on the calendar, but it certainly feels like it. Although I'm not the biggest fan of the cold, I appreciate the crisp air wafting scents from wood stoves and fireplaces into my nostrils so that my olfactory senses can enjoy them. I learn to appreciate the little things in winter in order to remind myself that it's not all cold, darkness, and depression. But without these dormant periods in the environment, there wouldn't be any appreciation for the fresh, green grass, trees, and flowers come springtime.
Much like the seasons on a calendar, our lives cycle through seasons. Some seasons may include numerous trials, while others are full of joy. During some seasons we may be rather productive, while others have us desperately searching for meaning and significance. Without this ebb and flow, there is the potential for getting too comfortable, losing focus, and possibly drifting from God. Our faith may get stale and our effectiveness within ministry may diminish without down time that allows us to recuperate.
For a portion of the year, I volunteer for various disaster relief projects around the country. Most of the work is physically demanding, spiritually taxing, and emotionally exhausting, but I'm very aware that an impact is being made within the community. From clean yards, to mudded out homes, to tears of joy, there is typically a tangible representation for the work accomplished. The struggle for me during these times, though, is staying in the Word. Ironic how one can overtly be doing kingdom work, yet internally losing touch with God in the process. On the other hand, the season I find myself in at the moment is at the total other end of the spectrum. I'm currently doing data entry for a ministry project, but because the work is so monotonous, I have a minimal sense of accomplishment at the end of each day. The blessing in my work, though, is that I have more time to commune with God. In order to beat traffic, I leave early in the morning, which gives me extra time to read my daily devotional and some Scripture when I get to work. I also have the opportunity to listen to worship music as I type, and I'm able to get a better sense of who God is when I fully concentrate on the lyrics.
Change is necessary and inevitable in order to keep our souls from getting stagnant. No matter what season you find yourself in today, remember that your significance in life is wrapped up in God and that you're truly making a difference when He is glorified by your actions. As Colossians 3:17 reminds us, "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Ordinary Can Make Life Extraordinary

This summer I was selected to be a part of the launch team for Melanie Shankle's new book, Church of the Small Things. Melanie has a special way of putting you at ease, like you're in her living room having a chat, while tackling this internal struggle that plagues numerous women: whether or not they are living a worthy life. So much of life seems focused on our "big moments," and not enough attention is given to those everyday, consistent actions that truly make up a life. We all strive to be Pinterest perfect, but we need to remember that just getting out of bed in the morning can be a victory in and of itself. Somehow in our search for significance, we forget about the importance of our very presence in people's lives.
Church of the Small Things made for a quick read because it was so easy to relate to the subject matter and it celebrates the little things in life. From hospitality received from grandparents, to loyal friendships, to figuring out how to house train dogs, this book has a way of impacting readers from all backgrounds with topics reminiscent of our own lives. Melanie draws you in with her wit and humor and her book has many moments where you will laugh until you cry, and then cry until you laugh again.
I've always been a fan of quirky imagery, which is why I think I love Melanie as an author. While I absolutely love her deeper thoughts about learning to trust God having a plan for your life and accepting that one must inevitably endure failures along the way, my favorite quotes from this book include, "Ironically, the laser was called the Cool Touch 1000, which is the biggest oxymoron of all time. The Cool Touch 1000 burned like the heat of 10,000 white hot suns surrounding a planet of volcanoes filled with molten lava that has been set on fire, and, "Because even though it's a stationary bike, I felt a little bit like a cat who has accidentally found itself in a tap-dancing competition."
If you neglected to pre-order Church of the Small Things, do yourself a favor and hop on over to your local Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy. And if you don't feel like crawling out of bed or leaving the house, feel free to order it online from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Refiner's Fire

There's a courage that is forged in pain
There's a purpose in the furnace flame
~Live Alive by Rend Collective 

Within the Bible there is much imagery dedicated to gold and silver being purified in fire. Just as smelters seek to rid precious metals of their impurities, the Lord seeks to purify the hearts of His followers. God desires to strengthen the faith of believers and draw them closer to Himself. 1 Peter 1:6-7 seeks to illustrate this point by stating, "In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith -- more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire -- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." In light of this Scripture, and looking back on 2016, I very much believe that I spent the year in God's forge.
To impersonate Sophia Petrillo, "Picture it! Galilee, PA: February 2016." It was my least favorite month of the year and the gloom of winter was causing my mind and thought processes to spiral downward. For those who don't know, I struggle with anxiety and depression that can either be general, circumstantial, and almost always seasonal. If I'm diligent in prayer, I can usually catch myself and hold off the downward spiral. But other times, like last winter, my mind can become its own worst enemy and I can create problems that don't actually exist.
Being an introvert, I'm very observant and attuned to patterns, and I had convinced myself that a particular pattern in communication had become fractured. Instead of dealing with this situation rationally, I allowed my anxiety to take a stranglehold on my life. I believe that the best description for the mental sabotage i endured can be found in Zach Eswine's book Spurgeon's Sorrows. In it he states, "Though none of the bad things we imagine have happened to us, we 'convert our suspicions into realities and torture' ourselves with them in our own imaginations." And as Spurgeon himself declared, "On the very slightest turn of circumstances we begin to fret." Believe me when I tell you that it's not a fun place to be in mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. For anyone who has either experienced this personally or had a friend struggle, you'll know that an unfortunate byproduct of anxiety and depression is anger, and that was the next phase of my year.
At this point, I opted to go on a disaster relief trip for a change of scenery in the hope that this would cure my inner turmoil. While I was able to mask my struggles during the day for the most part, during my alone time the internal battle continued to rage and I began pleading with God to make me well. I was very aware that I was starting to lash out at close friends and couldn't figure out how to stop and just chill. I could totally relate to Anna Kendrick in her book Scrappy Little Nobody where she admitted, "The real problem is that I let my anxiety cripple my relationships." It was agonizing to notice shifts in friendships and painful to realize that my behavior was the most notable cause for the shift.
For the longest time I couldn't recognize the purpose behind my struggles. Thankfully God knew they were necessary to strengthen my resolve in order to minister to others while I dealt with the so-called trainwreck of my mind. Looking back to May, there was a particular morning that I was rather anxious and a chaplain pulled me aside at breakfast to pray with me. You know it's getting bad when the chaplains make a beeline for you. The blessing, though, was that I ended up working at the home of a woman who struggled with anxiety that bordered agoraphobia. I felt that God had placed me there specifically, so I took the time to share music with her, along with letting her know that it was okay to be frustrated and that there is an entire book in the Bible where the author voices his frustrations, which is aptly titled Lamentations. All of this was discussed while we carefully went through her closet looking for and thankfully finding the deed to her house. At the end of the day, another chaplain, who happened to be a trained counselor, expressed how he struggled to see past the clinical aspects of this homeowner's anxiety, but I was there in a capacity that allowed me to relate to her through shared experience. That was one of the few times all year that I felt like I had a purpose and that God was using my struggles to benefit others.
Although I came to this realization, I still endured a summer plagued with anger and negative thought processes. There were some notable bright moments spent with friends watching soccer, but I remained consumed by things that had gone wrong and yearned for my life and friendships to be restored to how they were in previous months. I forgot that change is inevitable and God had His own plan. He desired for me to focus solely on Him and in order to do that, certain aspects of my life needed to be refined and idols discarded. It wasn't until August that I finally began implementing some of these changes, which included taking better care of myself mentally and spiritually. This involved rearranging my work schedule so that I could finally make it to church on Sunday. This in turn gave me an opportunity to stop by work on my way home from church to share what I had learned during the sermon.
Through all of this, I finally recognized that God had protected me during certain events and kept me out of particular circumstances. He also made me keenly aware of the blessings He bestowed on me. The most apparent blessings came in the form of friends and fellow believers who desired to minister to me, pray for me, and help restore my lost joy. I'm thankful that I finally recognized the purpose for walking through God's refining fire this past year. I've taken to heart James 1:2-3, which states, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." Without facing trials, I may fall prey to thinking that I can do life without relying on God. Through my many trials, though, I've drawn closer to God, restoring my loyalty to Him, with a renewed desire to stand for my faith.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Who is Your Captain?

Through waters uncharted my soul will embark
I'll follow Your voice straight into the dark
And if from the course You intend
I depart
Speak to the sails of my wandering heart
~Captain by Hillsong United

I'm a natural born wanderer. I just can't seem to sit still or stay in one place for very long. I know this pains some people who wish that I would be a more consistent presence in their life, but sadly, that's just not how I'm wired. At the same token, though, I'm not just aimlessly going through life. I plan to some extent, but God typically nudges me in a different direction, which has been pretty obvious during my past four years, but especially in the past four months. Four months ago I had a job. Four months ago I was trying to figure out what job to apply to next. Four months ago I got a text alert about wildfires in Middletown, CA, and took a leap of faith and told my job I was no longer available to work.
Sounds silly and foolish, I know. But disaster relief is one of those things that I feel called to do, even if that means giving up the safety and security of a paycheck. Nowhere else have I felt purpose and the ability to live out the Gospel than when I am serving people who have lost everything. We can't constantly live our lives chasing after the "almighty" dollar. That is the surest way to feel empty inside. For me, God is constantly showing me that it's serving others and the people I come across in life that help provide adventure, fulfillment, and meaning. By allowing God to lead the way, I've lived the most random four months in my entire life, and I don't think I've ever been more thankful for the path that He chose for me.
If it wasn't for that leap of faith back in September, I would never have met friends who have become family, I may not have known about a seasonal position in Charlotte that helped get me through December, and I would have spent Thanksgiving at home in Pennsylvania, rather than in New Mexico like I did. There's also a chance that I may not have had the courage to pack up my room in Charlotte on New Year's eve in order to hit the road for more volunteer work in Texas, which then led me to Missouri for more flood cleanup.
It's really awesome looking back at how God lined everything up for me up until this very moment. If it wasn't for that trip to California, I may not have had the option to head west to visit friends in Colorado after volunteering in Missouri, which could have left me stranded on a highway trying to venture east through this past weekend's epic blizzard. It's a constant reminder that I'm not in charge of my life as much as I'd like to believe that I am. God is the true captain of my life, which is ever apparent to me at this very moment. Today has been the embodiment of Proverbs 16:9, which states, "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps." This morning I left one friend's house with the anticipation of spending the next few days with another friend. As I hit the road today, though, my friend informed me that her daughter is currently sick and we'll have to postpone my visit. I opted to not panic, but instead, got a hold of another friend who just so happens to currently live in Colorado, rather than Vermont. She thankfully has room for me to crash tonight, so I don't have to stay forever at the Super Target I'm chilling at right now. Although my initial plans fell apart, God provided another option. I may not understand the reasoning behind it all, but I don't doubt that there is a purpose that might be revealed one day.

Like the stars
Your Word
Will align my voyage
And remind me where I've been
And where I am going
My Captain
My soul's trusted Lord
All my allegiance is rightfully Yours 
~Captain by Hillsong United

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Metaphorical Thorn

"Arguably, issues of mental health are always invisible – always something embarrassedly swept aside in favour of problems easier to acknowledge and talk about." ~Claire Bennett

For those of you who are unaware, I've dealt with anxiety and depression since around the age of 15, so I've had some personal experience with what would be deemed mental health issues. For awhile, I used to be ashamed of my struggle and it was always hard to talk about it because, unfortunately, there are many who either don't understand or accept mental health as "actual" issues. The reasoning behind that can range from ignorance to the false assumption that those individuals struggling should just think positively and need to change their frame of mind. Truth be told, it's not that simple. But it's not easy to explain, either, especially to those who don't really want to listen. 
Anxiety and depression are each their own animal, but can occasionally be packaged together in a single individual's brain, such as mine. Anxiety has a tendency to make me hyper aware in certain situations, especially anything that's new and unknown. I joke that there's a little hamster on a wheel running in my brain constantly, because in all honesty, that's one of the best ways for me to describe how I feel. I'm a classic over-analyzer and over-thinker, which just creates more rabbit trails for my anxiety when it's close to the surface. This is what makes my ability to socialize difficult at times. My mind has this way of sabotaging me at times just for its own amusement. Simple conversation can be made difficult when I have thoughts coursing through my brain wondering if I'm talking too much, annoying somebody, or discussing topics that are uninteresting. This doesn't just happen when I talk to people in person, either. I almost have to give myself a pep talk when it comes to calling or texting people at times. Yes, I know that sounds odd, and it is, but that's how my brain works sometimes.
Then of course there's the depression. When depression rears its ugly head, it can plunge me not only into despair, but also a state of numbness. It makes me feel like I have no emotions at all sometimes, and I desire strongly to isolate myself from others in order to avoid talking about my struggles because so often I'm unable to put them into words. How can I possibly explain my sadness when nothing is truly wrong? Saying you're depressed is usually met with responses like, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," but nothing more. People have a tendency to walk on eggshells around people with depression, or just avoid the issue altogether. It takes a very special friend to be willing to remain steadfast with someone in the midst of a battle with depression.
When I think about it, though, I wouldn't change my life or take the battle away. The battle has aided me in certain situations because those who struggle with anxiety and depression are more empathetic to others in a similar plight. I recognize some signs in others on occasion and have had the opportunity to start discussions with certain individuals about their own battle. On some occasions I have desired to have a "normal" life and not have to deal with my depression and anxiety. Much like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:8, when he desired to have the thorn removed from his flesh, I have pleaded to have God ease the anguish enveloping my brain, but the struggle remains in varying degrees. I think it remains as a reminder for me seek God with all my heart and mind in order to find peace because if I had a so-called easy life, I believe that I would forget God's provision for me. I just have to remember that God's grace is sufficient. Nothing more. Nothing less.

"I was reminded tonight of just how brave people who suffer from depression/anxiety/etc are. To fight those battles & survive is just...heroic." ~Mandy Hale

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rejecting the Kingdom of Self

"Only when we have become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for his sake."
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I've been reading through The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and let me tell you, it will definitely convict you of your shortcomings and unveil any selfishness that still exists in your heart. Though it's hard and feels like a slap in the face, it's necessary in order to live with complete abandon to Jesus. Pride and self-centeredness are two great evils that must be combated in every individual so as to preserve the integrity of the Christian mission, and I'll be the first to tell you that I've been complacent in my own battle until recently.
I'm not exactly sure how it happened, and it was probably due to a myriad of factors, but at somepoint, I stopped making an effort to reach out to people and be truly concerned about what they were doing in life and what struggles they were facing. I was taking the ostrich approach to life: head in the sand to ignore what was going on around me. But by being too busy focusing on myself and all of the recent changes in my life, I forgot to use my spiritual gift of encouragement. I think in my mind I convinced myself that if I was discouraged with the path I was on, what's the point of trying to encourage someone else? And that's where I was wrong. I forgot that the Christian life is upside down and backwards, which meant that I forgot that by choosing to encourage someone else, I in turn would end up being encouraged. Selfishness will do that to you, though. It'll convince you that there's no sense being involved in somebody's life when things aren't going they way you had hoped.
It wasn't until I saw a particular post on Facebook that I had my head yanked back out of the sand. I can't remember the exact wording, or even who posted it, but it basically called for the reader to ponder how many people struggled to get through their day because the person God appointed to encourage them chose not to. In that moment, the hamster on the wheel in my brain literally started sprinting and my eyes were opened to how I was being flagrantly disobedient. Not only was I not wielding my spiritual gift, but I was ignoring other Scriptures that call for us to encourage others and be supportive of the Christian community such as Hebrews 10:24-25 and 1 Thessalonians 5:11. It also made me wonder how many times I'd potentially missed the opportunity to make a new friend because I was too busy wanting life to be all about me, rather than about Jesus and his kingdom.
As of late, I feel like I've finally returned to my old encouraging self now that I'm a little less focused on my own life and am instead reaching out to others. It honestly doesn't take that much effort, which makes me realize how selfish and complacent I had really become to not bother extending myself either via text, phone call, or any other form of communication. You, also, can easily encourage others by either going to an event a friend is participating in, streaming it online, forwarding posts that remind you of someone, patting someone on the back after they courageously share their testimony in public, or passing along information about a cause that is near and dear to someone's heart. All we need to do is burst the bubble of self and cheer on other people and we will in turn realize that we end up getting blessed by purposefully choosing to bless and encourage others.

"The inability to celebrate what God is doing in and through someone else simply reveals a profound sense of fear, insecurity, and lack of trust in a big, gracious, faithful, and loving God. If you are in your lane running your race and another person is faithfully in their lane running their race then there is no possible way that the success of one can diminish the effectiveness of another. It is God who calls us and He is good and He does good. We need to get a bigger view of God so we do not allow our own flesh, feelings, thoughts, and limitations to rule and reign. Why don't we choose to celebrate each other rather than compare and compete with each other." ~Christine Caine