Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Breathe

I have an issue with anxiety.  My panic attacks are as simple as heart palpitations and hyperventilation or a difficulty breathing, to severe attacks that leave me immobile because the shaking, labored breathing, heart racing and a sort of paralysis of the mind.  I wouldn't be able to stand if you forced me to my feet.  It's not without reason, but it's become a more frequent thing in the past five years.  I attribute it to finally processing loss and pain that I never allowed myself to do as a child, and the mere thought of being so vulnerable again brings up that anxiety.  More often than not I just can't catch my breath very well and I have to really focus on slowing down my heart rate.

My sinful nature doesn't help my anxiety either.  It always finds a way to express itself in my words or deeds (Romans 7:15-25).  My prayer, what I strive for, is to be like Christ, sinless.  It's impossible, but it's what I'm called to do (Romans 6:6).  Sometimes though, my sin is overwhelming, which leads to more panic attacks.  What I've done in response to those who've sinned against me, what I've said to hurt those who've hurt me, what I've taken from the innocent out of selfishness, how I've gone about living when I know it's not the path God has laid out for me... it's enough to bring me down into the pit of despair - is there any hope for a wretch like me who wants so badly to be like Jesus?  Cue panic attack.

The past five months I've been undergoing some severe spiritual construction.  I've been seeking God, whether I knew it or not, for as long as I can remember.  What started as a voice guiding me toward life when I was a child turned into a name that filled my heart with warmth and truth when I was old enough to grasp the Word (John 10:27).  I knew I was broken, and I knew he was the doctor who could fix me (Luke 5:31-32).  It took 21 years for me to get baptized, but when I sank into those salty waters of the East China Sea on the shores of Okinawa Japan and came into the sunlight gasping for air, that first taste of oxygen had never before been so sweet.  I not only knew the Truth, I now belonged to the Ancient of Days who is Truth (1 John 5:6).

I spent the next few months adjusting to the transition from the Marine Corps to life as a civilian back in the house I grew up in.  By the time September came, I realized I was much more broken than I initially believed - and I saw myself as pretty shattered.  Since then I've been working toward healing, but it's been a very dark, painful journey (Job 19:10).

God has to break me down to build me into the woman he knows I'm capable of being, but it's similar to setting a broken arm.  The break in the past was painful enough, but to set it again takes months of sitting in a cast, the crack of setting bone in the right place, and then more months of recuperation.  The time depends on the kind of break, the attitude of the individual and the steps one takes to ensure healing.

Imagine feeling as though every emotional and spiritual bone in your body has been fractured beyond repair.  You didn't realize it wasn't normal to limp along the way you've been doing, you realize you're unable to keep up with those around you, and everything hurts.  Do you stay that way, or do you get better?  For the past five months I've been seeking to get better by putting out the lies in my heart and igniting the truth... doing so has put me in, what feels like, an emotional and spiritual cast.  Immobilized, I'm able to show up but unable to really participate the way I'd like to - wholeheartedly.  Able to smile, but unable to hold a laugh for very long.  The medication I needed, scripture and prayer, I took daily, but it didn't always make me feel better (Psalm 13:3).  Still, I hoped in the truth, in the love of the God and the sacrifice of His Son (Psalm 13:5).

I'd be lying if I said I didn't try other things.  I did.  I drank, I smoked, I even went to far as harming myself to diminish the pain in my heart by focusing on a physical pain I could bear.  Still, I read and I prayed - even when those prayers were feeble and had no heart because there was such a consuming fog inside.  I begged God for a reprieve.  I wept in the arms of those who were equipped to shoulder my pain, content to listen and hold me without having any answers to my very difficult questions I was too afraid to ask God himself.

Then, in my desperation, I committed a sin that involved another person I vowed never to harm.  Knowing God is all-powerful, knowing he is a God of love, it astounds me that he allows his children to do such things to one another.  However, I also know he gifted us with free will, and isn't surprised by anything we do (Psalm 44:21).  He promises to protect us (Isaiah 31:5) and never give us more than we can handle (Philippians 4:13) and love us through any and everything we face - even when we bring it on ourselves (Hebrews 13:5).  Through that sin, I realized some very difficult things about myself I don't think I could've learned if I hadn't done what I did.  Sometimes God let's us fall flat on our face in sin, even sin we swear we'll never do, to get a point across - we CANNOT do it our way.  It has to be His (Luke 9:23).

For some reason, today I can breathe.  Though I can still feel my anxiety beneath it all, I can still sense the desire to prepare for a panic attack that may or may not come, though my heart wants to buck like a colt, today the God of Comfort has given me the ability to breathe in the way I breathed my first breath as his daughter.  Perhaps it was all of my prayers, the pathetic and those with substance.  Perhaps it was the prayers of others.  Maybe it was the fact that I continued to show up even though I couldn't do much else.  Or maybe it's because I continued to open my Bible even when I didn't get anything from it yesterday or the day before or the day before or... or perhaps it's just because God is a loving God and he doesn't give more than we can handle, and he does give exactly what we need when we need it.  Perhaps I just needed it.  Perhaps he just loves me enough to show me he is a God of love and not of pain.  Or maybe it's all of the above and reasons of which I'm not even aware.

I don't know what tomorrow will bring, but I do know that I can't focus on tomorrow (Matthew 6:34).  Today is all I need, and today I give thanks to a God who is allowing me to breathe.  If it's to prepare me for very difficult days in the near future, then I will soak up all I can in this day, read and pray and read and pray some more and have faith that he will get me through the next storm that is surely on the horizon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Questions of a Christian



To be a Christian without questions is to not be a Christian at all.  Christianity takes faith, and without questions there's no reason to have any faith.  A common misconception about Christianity is that after baptism, or after the first year, or the first ten years, you stop having questions because you either a) know all the answers or b) are completely content not knowing them.  It's a lie.
The Bible makes it clear that in this life we will not be satisfied with what we see and hear (Ecclesiastes 1:8).  I take comfort in this scripture, as it comes from King Solomon, the man who was wiser than any man before him and any man since (1 Kings 3:12).  Can you imagine having that kind of wisdom?  Regardless of the circumstances that come your way you have the discernment to make the best decision as to how to handle it emotionally, mentally, spiritually and with your actions regarding others.  It was with this wisdom that King Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes seeking to understand life.  He makes it clear from the beginning that we will always have questions.

Lately I've been wrestling with the idea that questions are okay and, believe it or not, to ask them is okay as well.  I grew up with separated, and then divorced, parents.  I traveled back and forth between homes every couple of days and in both homes asking questions was something you just didn't do.  I never allowed the word "why" to escape my lips because the immediate response was soaked in outrage as though mere curiosity was an act of defiance.  My parents had enough on their plate to worry about - our life was a regular episode of Days of Our Lives.  Looking back, I believe my parents saw my questions as a threat because they didn't want, or were simply not able, to hear the answers.  I don't resent them for this, it's just the way it was.  Parenting is an adventure I have yet to embark on so I can only imagine the difficulty of raising four children while their own lives were falling apart around them.  However, their actions had consequences and I find myself working through many of them today.

Without realizing it, I began seeing God like I saw my parents.  Very typical of any Christian.  Our parents are god to us until we reach the point of realizing they're not - and I've come to see there is no particular age for this as I've met adults who still have such a perspective.  I was afraid that if I asked my parents the wrong question, voiced my concern or disapproval or sought any kind of validation for my emotions, they'd retaliate, punish me, ignore me and eventually simply stop loving me and leave.  I'd seen them do it before and since then have lived with an impending fear it'd happen again - and often at least one of those things would happen, which only reinforced the fear of their certain departure.

All of those fears, consequently, transferred to God.  I prayed, but every prayer was heavy with thanksgiving, pleas for "growth" and a desire to be "better" and light with questions, concerns, doubts and fears.  I never allowed myself to go there because it took me to the precipice of the depths of my loss from years earlier; even as an adult I was still fighting through many of those losses.  Getting to that precipice caused fear too great, and negative emotions I couldn't identify too powerful to work through alone.  To combat this I did with God what I'd done for years with my parents - I didn't ask, didn't bring it up, and stuffed whatever questions and concerns I had by pretending they didn't matter.  God loved me, that was all I needed and it was selfish to ask for more.  I figured God knew anyway and if he wanted to answer them or enlighten me then that'd be a bonus to what I already had, which was the knowledge that He loved me and saved me.

When I got baptized, the questions only got louder.  I knew God was who He said He was - God can't lie (Titus 1:2).  I knew the Bible was absolute Truth - it was breathed out by the God who cannot lie (2 Timothy 3:16).  I began reading scriptures like Zephaniah 3:17 where it talks about the Lord saving me, rejoicing over me, and quieting me with his love... so why are the questions so loud?  I'd read 1 John 4:18 and saw there's no fear in love... then why am I so afraid? ... and Hebrews 13:5, God will never leave me or forsake me... so where was he when I was being abused all those years?  And the one I wrestle with more than most, Romans 10:11 says those who believe in Christ will not be put to shame... oh really?  Because I'm facing a whole lot of shame.



Questions.


I came to the understanding pretty quickly that knowing something and believing it are completely different things.  It's absolutely possible to intellectually grasp something as truth and still find it practically impossible to embrace it in your heart.  My mind looks at those scriptures and I know they're true.  My heart, which is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9) denies it emphatically and has decades of hurt filed away nice and neatly to argue it's case.  And what a case my heart presents.  Still, I know my heart is broken - even my heart believes it is broken.  And praise God He knew I wouldn't be the only one who struggled with this dilemma.  He makes it clear he is nearbind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives and opening the prison to those who are bound (Isaiah 61:1-3).

So what does that do for my questions?  It gives me the freedom to ask them with the security that Jesus is not going to leave me high and dry.  He's near the brokenhearted, which is definitely me, and nowhere in the Bible does it say my questions or concerns will make that scripture no longer true.  He'll still be near me after I bring those up.  The absolutes in scripture do not have extenuating circumstances or hidden clauses.

Fact: I am brokenhearted, have been for many years and will probably be in some capacity for many more to come.  Jesus came for me.  To be near to me and bind me up. (Psalm 34:18; Isaiah 61:1-3)
Fact: My heart has a stronger case against Jesus than my head has for him.  The heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9).  I have to have faith and the works to back it up, otherwise I am as good as dead (James 2:26).
Fact: I fear I will not have the strength to make it through what's to come.  The grace of God IS sufficient for me and Christ's power is made perfect in my weakness - so it's okay to be weak! (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Fact: I fear God will give up on me because I'm far too much work and I'm not worth it.  God knit me together in my mother's womb knowing exactly how much work I'd be, how stubborn and frustrating I'd be and he is not unprepared for the work ahead of him regarding what there is to do in me (Psalm 139:13-16; 23-24).  He started his work in me and will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6).

So here's the real question at the root of all the other questions: am I willing to have the faith to believe that all of this is true, even when I don't feel like it is?  When the questions seem to be legitimate, when I'm drowning in the pain of loss, when my nightmares and thoughts leave me in despair, and my sin piles on top of sin, am I willing to have faith in God and his promises even then?

Today I am.  I believe tomorrow will be harder, and I may not believe it as well as I do today.  Tomorrow I may fall, tomorrow I may fail, but today I will work to have the faith.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Beginning to See the Beginning

Jeremiah 29:11-13 is one of the first scriptures I memorized.  "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.  You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart."  Memorizing it in your head is one thing.  It's entirely different to write it on your heart and truly believe what it's saying.

2011 was one of my most difficult years.  After a very long battle that nearly got me an early discharge from the Marine Corps, for no other reason than being a few pounds overweight, I was finally honorably released.  I was baptized, made into a disciple of Jesus Christ, I helped a friend go through her newly deceased mother's belongings.  I moved away from my home in Okinawa Japan and a job I loved dearly after nearly three years.  I moved back in with my parents, newly unemployed.  I was in the hospital for colitis that cancelled a trip to Turkey I'd been planning for nearly a year.  I bought a car, and exactly a week later I was hit and my new used car was totaled.  I studied the Bible with a dear friend of mine who moved up from Utah, and she was baptized, became a disciple of Jesus, became my sister.  I made a friend who is more than a best friend, more than a sister.  My baby sister, my only biological sister, got married.  I bought another new used car.  I started working with a few women in my church to help me work out and heal from a past I ignored for the majority of my life, and got a part time job that barely pays the bills but does pay the bills.

Oddly, the most significant thing to happen this year, is the step of faith I took in creating those relationships with the women in my church who have taken me into their care.  Let me explain why.  Words like "weak" and "vulnerable" and "help" are ones that when applied to me, quickly earn a scowl.  I can be very defensive when scriptures like 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 or 1 Peter 3:4 or Romans 8:26 or Romans 14:1 come into conversation.... I tend to think, "that's for other people."  Being weak isn't something I need to do or should do... that's for others.  I'm strong, I've got this.  Then one day I was asked to take a position in the church that required me to not only talk the talk of righteousness, but walking the walk in my life as well.  That meant if I was going to be the disciple God had in mind for me to be, I had to deal with the hurt and loss of my past that I'd ignored for more than a decade in order to have the capacity in my heart to love as he intended for me to love.  I had to be weak.  GULP.

I've formed relationships with four women in particular that have helped me in ways they are aware, and many ways they are unaware.  One has crawled through the muck and mire of my most haunting events to help me come to terms with them, and continues to do so.  Another has shepherded me while coaching me through how to accept and come to terms with those haunting events today.  Another has created a category all her own combining both of those things as my friend and sister.  Still another has become my surrogate mother.  All do so while pointing me to Jesus.  For months I've seen little progress in my heart and mind, and a lot of sliding backwards.  Guiltily I continued to meet with these women, be loved by them and love them, learn from them and about them and wonder when I would be able to give them some relief to know that they weren't wasting their time or wisdom.

On New Years Eve I experienced a breakthrough in a way that couldn't have encouraged me more as I prepared to bring in the new year.  I'm currently reading the book "When Food is Love" by Geneen Roth.  The introduction of this book convicted the pants off of me - in the privacy of my own home.  After chapter one, I had to lay down and close my eyes to absorb and process what I'd just read and learned.  I began to see myself as a child.  A home video of sorts.

I saw a toddler in her bathing suit running around the backyard with a dog, following mom in the garden and mimicking pulling weeds, a child no older than seven laughing, decorating a Christmas tree, reading Jack and the Beanstalk, coloring at the kitchen table, smiling while baking cookies with flour on her nose... all reeling across my mind like the various home video's I'd seen over the years marbled with the memories I have of my childhood.  In the quiet, I heard a small, soft voice... "Look at her... that's my girl.  That's my Sami.  Isn't she beautiful?  Look how pretty she is.  Look at that smile.  I made that smile.  Look at the baby belly and those itty bitty fingers... see way she runs?  See those eyes, those beautiful eyes... look at my girl." I could hear the pride and the love in that voice and I felt it deep in the crevices of my heart that rarely feels anything at all.  And then the young face changed.  The laughter was gone, the light disappeared from her eyes and turned downcast, and because the little girl was me, I knew why.  The voice whispered, "It wasn't supposed to be that way."



I realized that night, that I need to grieve.  In order to grieve, however, I have to admit that there is something in my life worth grieving.  Crying over the little girl who used to be, the little girl that was me, was a step in realizing that there is loss in my life I need to accept and mourn.  Even as I write this it sounds a little dramatic, trivial, pathetic and ridiculous... which tells me I'm not even at the point of being able to begin grieving yet. I still have much to do in regards to getting to the point of being able to start grieving.  Or perhaps I've begun grieving that short stage of my life and I must do that first before I can begin the next stage.  I'm not entirely sure.

I am sure that that breakthrough, that revelation, was a step I've been waiting for since I first asked for help in September.  It may seem like something I should've done years ago, and you'd be right to make that assumption.  The reality is I haven't, and such a step for me, the gift of revelation God gave me yesterday evening, was a step.  Big or small doesn't matter to me, it was movement forward, and for that I give God the glory and thanks.

Returning to the scripture of Jeremiah 29:11-13.  God does know the plans he has for us, and while I don't know why he lets things happen the way they do, I do know that his plan for us is to prosper us and his plans for us are always for our good.  If we seek him with our whole hearts, we will find him.  I don't know why he allowed me to lose so much as a child, but I know his plan for me as an adult entails healing, and by looking to those scriptures like 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 about boasting in my weaknesses and allowing Christ to be my strength in weakness, I can heal.  I only need to wait on the Lord.  Be strong, take heart, and wait on the Lord.  (Psalm 27:14)