Today I Saw God
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God." – Exodus 20:8-10
I'm dating myself here, but does anyone but me remember when most stores were closed on Sundays? When I think about those days as a kid I remember feeling sometimes that Sunday afternoons were boring. No mall to go to, no errands to do with my momjust books to read, maybe some TV to watch and hours to spend by myself and with my parents. Today, that sounds like a vacation! It's funny how our perspective changes once we have more options for how to spend our time.
The key word here is "options." I'll bet if I took I a poll, at least 50 percent of the people I talk to in a given week would use the word "busy" to describe their lives. Whether you work outside the home or have a full-time job running a household and/or raising a family, I'm sure you're busy too. Life is full of demands on our time, energy and attention, and it may feel like your only option is to keep moving. And yet, what happens after you take a break? Even a short break can make a dramatic and positive difference in how we feel and how we operate. In my experience, nobody will set that boundary for you. You have to do it yourself if you want to preserve time to renew.
It is counter to our fast-moving, accomplishment-driven culture, but I think we'd all benefit if we reclaimed our Sabbath day, or at the very least, a Sabbath hour or two. A few weeks ago I skipped my errands after worship and enjoyed a Sabbath afternoon of my own. I listened to some music (thank you, Lauren Daigle) and read some inspirational passages from a book that has been on my coffee table for a long while. I listened to the birds in my backyard and watched airplanes create long white streaks in the crisp blue sky. I ended the day by attending a restorative yoga practice instead of the usual heated power yoga practice I enjoy multiple times per week. My Sabbath afternoon was mostly quiet, grounding, and exactly what I needed to tune into myself and whatever God was trying to say to me.
I recently heard a quote by Matsuo Bash, the 17th century Zen poet, that speaks to the concept of Sabbath: "Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself." I've committed to having a Sabbath afternoon at least once a month during this busy spring season. I can't wait for the next one.
The results were rather shocking. I mean ever since I was a child I knew my cholesterol was high (familial hyperlipidemia is the official diagnosis), but this was off the charts. My cholesterol was 314. My LDL was 209, and my HDL was 95. (Note: physicians like to see your cholesterol below 240LDL below 160 and HDL below 60). Something had to be done.
When the doctor and I spoke about strategies, she was pretty clear. She said my levels were likely the result of my age and that medication would probably be the only way to get them to come down. I explained that I really didn't want to go on medication. I wanted to give diet and exercise another try. That's where my friend Tracy came in.
For months Tracy had been telling me about this new exercise program at the gym we both attend. In casual conversation she would share, "I think you would like this," or "Why don't you come with me?" She was persistent but not in a pushy way, more out of compassion and care. She knows me very well and really thought this experience would be good for me. One day I finally said, "Yes."
And you know what? She was right. It was exactly what I needed. Being an extrovert, I needed to be part of an exercise group. Being a morning person, I needed something that started between 6 and 7 a.m. Being a novice at weight training, I needed a trainer. And being already committed to a morning routine of prayer and scripture reading, I needed something that did not have a hard start time.
Twelve weeks in, and my cholesterol is down to 239! My LDL is at 148the lowest ever in my lifeand my HDL is at the very protective level of 91. My health has been dramatically altered, transformed if you will, because of my friend Tracy.
Why tell you this story? I've been thinking a lot about this experience. This is a wonderful example of evangelism. That is to say, how we share "good news." Tracy shared her experience with me knowing me well enough to know that I too would benefit from and even enjoy what she herself had experienced. She was right.
I think we, myself included, are far more comfortable in sharing things like an exercise program than we are the life-altering experience of knowing Jesus. I've been very convicted by this experience. I now pray for God to place people and opportunities in my life that allow me to share the transformation I experienced from knowing Jesus as boldly as I share the transformational experience of an exercise program. Like the early church we read about in Acts that "never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah," (Acts 5:42) I pray that I will never stop telling people about the life-changing effects of knowing Jesus.
I had reached that critical moment when it was absolutely imperative that I get away. You know the feeling. It's that moment when various elements of your personal and professional lives collide in a perfect storm of chaos, and at the end of each day you collapse on the bed only to wake in a panic and jump right back in it again. It is typically in these seasons that we neglect the very things that would make us feel more energized and healthy. Our own mental, physical and spiritual health is shoved to the backburner so as to make more time to do.
This was me a few months ago. I decided I could indeed do all the things while ignoring all the feels. I was operating at an unhealthy level of busy, and when I did finally have free time, it was wasted scrolling through Facebook, silently screaming at every post. My mental and emotional health had flown out the window quite some time ago. It wasn't until my body began succumbing to every illness in existence that I realized my physical being was literally revolting against my lack of self-care.
Finally I admitted that I seriously needed a DIY retreat. I found some blank space in my calendar after Christmas and booked a room at a quiet winter beach. Then, I set off on a Pinterest journey to find every possible self-care activity in order to create the perfect retreat. I would come back rejuvenated, refreshed, recharged, relaxedbasically all the "re-" words would apply to me as I zenfully returned to Northern Virginia, and I would be healed. I couldn't wait.
The time came. After checking into my hotel, I did the thing everyone tells you to do but no one actually does: I turned off my phone and deleted social media apps from my iPad. Cold turkey. The first day was hard. With no distractions, I had to face myself, and there was a lot of ugly crying. However, after I got over the initial hump, I settled into a routine of praying, eating, journaling, practicing yoga, running and watching sunrises and sunsets. I drank tea, lit candles and sat in silence for hours. I studied the Bible and read devotions. I even meditated with a new app and wasn't completely terrible at it. Basically, I spent time being instead of doing. And it worked.
God and I had some seriously cool moments. We laughed (dude's got jokes) and talked, and God even spoke some hard truths. I realized how lonely it had been without God during those months when I'd shut him out. Sadly I even had to admit that maybe I'd been intentionally staying busy because I didn't want to hear what God had to say. It was terrible. It was wonderful. The retreat was working.
Then the snow reports came. This typically snow-proof coastal town was expecting 6-9 inches on my Saturday travel day, and I couldn't risk missing worship the next day. It was quite jarring to end my retreat early, but I begrudgingly packed up and convinced myself I could build my spiritual oasis at home. As I drove to Virginia, I was excited to re-enter my world as a new "re-" woman, refreshed and ready to tackle life.
Then reality set in. Part of my journey included I-495, which meant traffic was at a standstill. I felt my pulse quicken. I turned my phone back on. Dozens of emails popped up. I've only been gone three days. How? Twenty-five Facebook notifications and Snapchats popped up on my screen. I caught a glimpse of the news. My anxiety rose as I realized the real world was simply not conducive to my new retreat lifestyle.
How am I supposed to hold onto the good feels I'd found on the retreat when life is still happening? There will always be traffic, emails will always flood my inbox, work will always need to be done, family will always need to be tended to and stress will always be readily available.
I decided to revisit this notion of "self-care" that I'd been reading about. This is a term that is thrown around so often now that I tend to roll my eyes when I hear it. At first, I assumed this was merely justification for endless "treat yo'self" days. However, the more I read, the more I realized that self-care is not simply self-indulgence. It is about taking inventory of your life and intentionally spending time to nurture your whole self, to include your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs. As a codependent, this feels incredibly unnatural, but I think it might just be the key to my salvation.
In order to maintain my retreat mindset, I took inventory of which activities helped restore my soul. What did I do while away that I could incorporate into my daily routine, and where would I find the time? I quickly realized that morning might be the best option, which is ironic considering I'm not exactly a ball of sunshine at that time of day. Typically I roll around hitting the snooze button and scrolling Facebook before standing bleary-eyed in the shower for way too long. Why not restructure my morning?
My phone has been a major source of toxic procrastination, so I moved it and my alarm across the room. I'm now rising early enough to sip a cup of tea while the world awakens, which is magical. Devotions, meditations and prayer are becoming a part of my daily routine, and physical exercise is being prioritized in my schedule. I'm lighting candles and looking into ways I can include outdoor time. Each day I'm making the conscious decision to nurture my relationship with God and myself.
So here we are, after the retreat, when I am supposed to be fully restored. Did it work? Not entirely. But that's why God didn't tell us to take a Sabbath once or twice a year. We are meant to incorporate rest and quiet moments with God into our lives every week. Have there been days when I grumbled nasty things at my alarm clock? Sure. However, I can definitely say that my overall mental and spiritual health is improving, which means that consequently every aspect of my life is improving. Honor the Sabbath. Hmmmaybe, just maybe God knows what he's talking about after all.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. Since joining the field of ministry, I have learned to hold this saying in my heart, but it truly pains me when I see the depth of some of these secret battlesespecially when it leads to tragedy. A few years ago, our community was rocked by news that was and is one of the most tragic events in my life. A family very near and dear to our hearts had all passed away, simultaneously. My stepson's life-long best friend, two former students who were now in middle and high school, a family that my husband and stepchildren had dined with, laughed with and even vacationed with just two months earliereveryone was gone. When news spread through our community, we all clung together in horror trying to figure out what could have caused something so terrible, until finally we received the news that none of us were expecting: it was a murder-suicide at the hands of the father.
I have to admit that typically when I have heard stories like this on the news, the first words that came to mind were "selfish" or "evil." However, anyone who knew this man knew that this was the exact opposite of the way we experienced him. "Selfless" and "loving" are the words I would use to describe him. His family was engaged in the community, supportive of one another, and seemed so happy. None of us could make sense of it, so we tried desperately to fill in the blanks. "Did we miss something?" "He mentioned some challenges at work." "Should we have seen this as a possibility?" "We knew there was a history of mental illness in his family." "Perhaps his wife tried to clue us in to their secret battle, but we were too dense to hear her?" This is one of the harshest realities of suicide. Not only are you dealing with the pain of loss but also, in most cases, there is never an explanation. As humans, we crave a narrative arc, and in cases of suicide, we might never get a resolution. It is like a favorite series that is abruptly cancelled without the dignity of a finale or a song in which the final chord never resolves. We are left feelingraw.
The reality is, it isn't always easy to spot the warning signs. Often people with mental illness are very adept at hiding it. I know this because I myself have struggled with anxiety and depression in the past and have a colorful spattering of mental illness in my family tree, yet I am quite skilled at the illusion of normalcy. I fear that we as a society have put different mental illnesses into a stereotypical box, and if someone doesn't look the way that a "depressed person" should look, then we assume they actually are fine, when they say as much. But let's be honestnot all depressed people are sitting at home with messy hair, eating ice cream and missing weeks of work. Some of us are still quite functional and walk through the day with an invisible, yet oh-so heavy fog, that we hide with a smile and a bubbly personality until the end of the day when we finally collapse from the exhaustion of keeping up the faade.
Despite my own battles with depression, I have been fortunate enough that I have never been suicidal, but the statistics are alarming. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, as of 2014, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death overall, and the second leading cause of death amongst people between the ages of 15 and 34. The number of attempts far surpasses this already shocking number. It is apparent that we must make cultural changes in order to address the prevalence of suicide in this country.
The most common cause of suicide is mental illness, yet we still struggle as a society to handle these invisible afflictions appropriately. It has been said, but it bears repeating. We absolutely must start treating mental illness the same way we do a physical illness. But what does that look like?
- First, we need to discuss issues of mental health in our families the same way we would talk about heart disease or cancer. It is very common to hear older relatives advising younger nieces and nephews of diet or exercise that might help reduce the risk of a heart attack if they have a history of heart disease. In the same way, I have been told since birth to wear sunscreen and a hat because of the high rate of skin cancer in my family. Yet, when it comes to a relative with bipolar disorder, we whisper in the corner to keep it a secret. Instead of treating this as if it is shameful, let's be honest within family communities about mental illness. If you do happen to have a genetic predisposition to depression, discuss healthy practices that can help. I personally have learned that a wholesome diet, regular exercise, time outdoors and elimination of caffeine are critical to my mental health. Moderation of alcohol is also imperative. While it in no way "cures" me, it does drastically reduce the severity of my symptoms.
- Second, if your family is at risk of mental illness, build a relationship with mental health professionals. I have never heard of a parent who waited to find a pediatrician until after their child's first bout of pneumonia. We take our children in for wellness visits annually, and as adults, if cholesterol is a family concern, we ask for blood work periodically to screen for any potential issues. Why don't we do the same for depression or anxiety? Finding a skilled mental health professional who is a) taking new clients, b) a good fit for your or your child and c) actually willing to accept your insurance is the worst, and it's the last thing you have the mental stamina to do when you are in an actual crisis. I'm not suggesting that you herd your kids in to therapy every week as soon as they can talk, but it doesn't hurt to establish a relationship with a practice you trust and to begin discussing coping mechanisms with children so that if they ever do start to feel symptoms of depression, they know what they are feeling and ways they can handle it.
- Third, can we please stop shaming people for taking medication? Seriously, just stop. Why is it acceptable to take ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure, yet unacceptable to admit that you need serotonin inhibitors for depression? Yes, lifestyle changes are helpful in both of these scenarios, but you or a loved one might come to a point where medicine is necessary. Let's talk openly about these medications with family members and friends so that everyone isn't quietly learning the hard way that it sometimes takes months to find the right dosage or medication and how important it is to slowly taper off from the drugs if and when it is time to stop taking them.
- Finally, if you do not understand depression because you have never experienced it, please educate yourself. The reality is that you are probably interacting with multiple people who struggle with some form of mental illness, but you just don't know it. It isn't always possible to just stop feeling that way. Someone struggling from depression can't fix themselves by choosing happiness any easier than a diabetic can cure themselves by thinking about healthy insulin levels.
Unfortunately, mental illness isn't the only risk factor of suicide. Traumatic events can serve as a catalyst for suicide, or some people are struggling with a secret that they feel is too shameful to share. This secret eats away at them until they convince themselves that they are unlovable or unworthy of the gift of life. This is an area where I feel we as a church sometimes fail our community. As Christians, my prayer for us is that we can establish an authentic network of love that would help people feel comfortable sharing the darkest spaces of their hearts. However, in order to do this, it requires that those of us who have lived through hardships open up about our struggles and stop trying to make everyone see how shiny and #blessed our lives are. It also requires that we as a community fight to rid ourselves of the stereotypes Christians have so painfully earned over the years as a group of people who are judgmental and like to gossip. Very few things ruffle my feathers more than a gossip collector hiding their toxic tendencies under the guise of "Christian concern." It is deplorable. If someone in your small group is hurting the trust in your community, please address it. Stop worrying about being polite, and start worrying about the long-term ramifications of building a culture that does not allow people to safely air out their hardships for fear of judgment.
Suicide is terrible, and sadly I will never know what exactly happened in my friends' private lives during those final moments. The ripples of pain that were created had a lasting effect that can still be felt years later by everyone involved. However, my hope for others is that we can work together to help shine a light on the dark spaces where the enemy convinces people their life is not worth living. Let's fight to create a safe space where people are real and mental illness is not shameful. Most importantly, let's pour light and love into everything and everyone we touch, for we truly never know the battles people are secretly fighting.
You never seem to be able to find the "right words" to express sorrow over the loss of someone you love. It is nearly impossible when you know that the person you lost took his or her own life. The question, "Why?" is a nagging reminder sometimes of how little we really know the condition of the soul of family members and friends, let alone neighbors. John Wesley used the question, "How goes it with your soul?" as a starting question in his small groups, believing that the covenantal discussions arising from that question propel us forward on our faith journey and growth in becoming disciples. Yet in so many cases the answer is, "I'm fine." No more, no less. "After all," we think, "does someone really want to know the extent of my personal anguish?"
When I heard the news that my good friend had hung himself, I can honestly say that I was deeply saddened in a way that is different from any other form of loss. And yet, there was a part of me that understood the depth of his struggle. Depression is an insidiously selfish condition. Every aspect of your being is viewed through the lens of a growing despair. The Greeks called it acedia, and it was poorly translated into sloth, one of the original deadly sins. But it isn't laziness; it is spiritual inertia, apathy, not caring that you don't care.
The vast majority of people who have or have had depression never attempt suicide, but most have had the thoughts. It is a permanent solution to temporary problems, and therein lays the rub. When you are in the cycle of depression, isolated, inwardly imploding, catastrophic thinking takes over, and the belief that this is what the rest of your life will be like becomes the norm. Day in and day out acedia. So there was a part of me that imagined what great relief must have come for my friend, but the price to pay for that relief was devastating. Foremost for my friend himself but secondarily for the family and friends who are scarred for life as we try in vain to make sense of something that clearly doesn't. Anger, sadness and a feeling of complicity sets in. "What could I have done?" "How could we not have known?" "How could they be so selfish?" These are the common questions. The answers are far from easy. And in many cases we will never know.
What I do know is that depression and suicidal thoughts are serious. Professional help is an absolute. People don't "snap out of it." Those considering something like suicide are far from rational and are so inwardly trapped that the "I'm fine" response cannot be taken lightly from those we know are suffering. There is rarely a day or two that pass that I don't think of my friend. I wish our love had been enough to ease his pain. I wish we could have understood.