Pressure

One of the messages we, as Christians, hear most often is probably that others should see something different about us. We are not to be like this world; we are called to be the Light of our Savior. Talk about pressure, right?

Luke sets the stage for Christ’s birth by giving the brief account of John the Baptist’s birth. An angel appears to his father Zacharias and tells him that his wife Elizabeth will have a son who will be highly favored by the Lord. Zacharias does not believe this, since he and his wife are past child-bearing age and she has not had children. Because of his disbelief, he is turned deaf and mute until his son is born (Luke 1:5-25).

Just the next verse over, in Luke 1:26, the angel appears to Mary and tells her she will have a son. She is shocked, but she worships God. Her next move is to go visit her relative, Elizabeth. (Yes–it’s the same Elizabeth.) And what happens when she appears? “And as it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41).

Elizabeth knew, her unborn son knew, that Mary was different. In fact, Elizabeth asks Mary, “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Mary is already being referred to as the mother of the Savior. If anyone has ever known pressure in her life, it’s Mary, I’m sure.

We can see the difference in Zacharias’ and Mary’s responses–one of disbelief and one of worship. I think that’s a pretty clear example of how we can handle pressure. We can believe in God but have disbelief about His works that we become silent. Or we can believe in Him and, even in the midst of the unbelievable, say “may it happen as You command it, Lord!”

And that is how people know who we belong to.

A few months ago, when I was getting my nails done, I got into a conversation with the lady next to me about my circumstances. Nothing detailed, nothing overly personal. She said she had felt like she should talk with me, and she asked if I was a “believer.” To be honest, this term throws me off. Can’t you just ask if I’m Christian? Or a woman of faith? I could “believe” in a lot of things. Anyway… She said she felt I was because of how at peace I seemed. After the conversation ended, I smiled. I had never had someone assume I was a Christian because of how I talked, and I had a moment where I thought “but how did she even see that?” And then I had another moment later: “Oh, no. What if I don’t always show that? What about those days I feel utter despair and no peace? Am I fraud?”

It can feel like a lot of pressure sometimes, but that’s because we are human and we aren’t perfect. But God loves us anyway. And in this season, where everyone else is so uplifted and joyful but I still struggle with a sense of hopelessness some days, I have to remember to take the pressure off myself. I’m not a “bad Christian” because there are days I just want to cry when I get home. I don’t believe in God any less because I sometimes struggle to see the good that can come from this season. My first response needs to be Mary’s, not Zacharias’.

And here’s the thing: God put that pressure on someone else, on His Son, so I didn’t have to struggle with it.

So, I want to leave you with this: “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45).

Different Versions

Have you ever had an experience with a friend, but they seem to remember it differently than you? That’s how I’m feeling as I am reading about the birth of Jesus.

Luke doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on His birth. In fact, Luke 1:39-56 is all about Mary visiting Elizabeth while Elizabeth was pregnant with John and Mary worshipping God. There are only 20 verses, Luke 2:1-20, that talk about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Needless to say, even after looking at footnotes and related passages, I left these passages feeling a little disappointed. Advent is about waiting expectantly, hopefully, with joy, and I felt…underwhelmed.

So in my desire to more fully know this story, I turned to another gospel: the book of Matthew. There is a significant difference between these two gospels, one that I had forgotten when I took on this endeavor, but one that is interesting to see.

Matthew 1:18 through Matthew 2:23 is the birth of Jesus, His family’s escape to Egypt, and establishing their home in Nazareth. Luke doesn’t cover any of that. I don’t know about you, but one of the things I remember most about the story of Christ’s birth is the star, the angel coming to the shepherds, and the wise men. Matthew covers all of that.

But what I find really intriguing is that while Luke writes about Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the reaction to the pregnant Mary by Elizabeth’s unborn child (John), Matthew writes about Joseph’s struggle with the news of his betrothed’s pregnancy. Joseph was concerned about what he would do with this woman who was pregnant though they were not yet together. And in his worry and attempt to solve it on his own–by “putting her away secretly” (Luke 1:19)–an angel appeared to him and told him not to be afraid, that this was by design of the Lord.

Joseph is described as a just man. According to a Word Wealth section in my Bible, this description means the following: “upright, blameless, righteous, conforming to God’s law and man’s. In the NT, it is used primarily of persons who correspond to the divine standard of right made possible through justification and sanctification.” So, Joseph was a man of God, by God’s own definition, and even he was afraid.

How many of us have gone through a situation where we have no idea how it started or what will come of it, but we are afraid? Maybe we are afraid of what others will say. Maybe we are afraid of what we will be like when it’s over. Maybe we hope that by hiding it away, it will go away. And have you ever wished God would just come down to you and say “Don’t worry–this is by design” followed by specifically the good that will come from it? I know I have. Heck, I still do.

But that’s the incredible thing about Christ’s birth: He is the way God told us not to be afraid. And I was reminded of that when I read this passage. That is what this season is about: waiting for Jesus without fear.

We are going to be afraid. We are going to go through all the possibilities in our minds of how to solve our problem. We are going to wonder. But God is telling us that we should not be afraid, that if we just wait we will see God with us.

Mental & Physical Preparation

This season has been a trying one for me, and God has guided me through ways to navigate it. Through His direction, I have turned to writing and exercise to manage my anxiety and depressive symptoms, both of which are far healthier than the alternatives.

I’ve talked about how running helps me get out of my head, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I signed up for the Disney Princess Half Marathon in February. In preparation for this, I’ve signed up for other races strategically between now and then. And Sunday is race 1: a 10K.

I ran 6.2 miles last Sunday as a practice run, so I’m toning down my running this week. Instead, I’m doing light exercises and some yoga–all from the comfort of my apartment. Nutrition is equally as important as the actual physical exercise, so I’m also being conscious of what I eat.

Only three days in to this “regimen”, and it hasn’t been easy. I’m tempted by cookies and Halloween candy every day. And, admittedly, I bought a pizza for dinner (though I didn’t finish all of it!). But having just completed Beachbody’s 80 Day Obsession, I am feeling confident that I can control myself…at least better than I used to be able to.

But physical preparation is only half the battle. Mental preparation is just as important. And as I’ve only ever run 5Ks before, my mind is doing it’s fair share of negative self talk: Why on earth did you sign up for this? You don’t have self control when it comes to food. You’re no different now. You’re never going to be able to do that half-marathon. 

Unlike the old me, this me isn’t going to give in to that nonsense. There are times on my runs when, even through the music blaring in my ears, that negative voice decides to be louder and I physically shake my head to shake it off or say a silent prayer. There have been times when, mid workout in the privacy of my apartment, I’ve actually said out loud “shut up!” to no one but that voice. There have been moments I have cried out loud “Jesus, please!” when the voice seems to be too much in control. The funny thing is, when I do that, I have this mental picture of, what I call, “bitch-me” making an angry face–lip curl, raised eyebrow, side eye–and giving me a doubting look while she fades back into the darkness. Because she knows she’s been defeated. It may only be for that moment, but she has been. And she will continue to be defeated one moment at a time.

Because that is how progress works. It doesn’t happen overnight. We won’t get rid of negative self talk in one day. We won’t cry out to Jesus and suddenly everything is better right then. We won’t because it’s those moments–the moments we need His grace and His strength the most–that help make us stronger.

Physical preparation means I eat right and do physical practices that will make me stronger but not wear me out or injure me. Mental preparation means I talk myself up this whole week, I excitedly tell others what I’m doing, and tell myself I will finish strong.

I don’t know what being prepared looks like for you, but it’s an important step in getting over any humps and in being prepared for when that negative voice creeps in. Being prepared doesn’t mean dwelling on the negativity; it means knowing what can trigger it and combating it accordingly.

I know my preparation journey–be it physical or spiritual–is far from over. And neither is yours. Stay in it in faith. It will get better, but only if you prepare.

Inked

“As a woman of faith, how do you feel about tattoos?”

When I was asked this question, I wasn’t sure how to respond initially. I had just been talking to this person about my tattoos and my desire for another. (I have 3 tattoos, and hopefully that 3 becomes 4 soon.) But when I finally understood the meaning, I was able to explain a little better.

This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten this question, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. A blog from HuffPost sums my own viewpoint pretty nicely.

The Old Testament is often quoted when dealing with the more law-like “rules” of Christianity. But when Christ came to earth and died on the cross, He did so to establish a new law: that anyone who believes in Him will have life. In my readings of the New Testament, tattoos are not mentioned. Instead, Christ is concerned with the heart of those who are seeking Him.

Tattoos cost some serious money and should therefore be serious considerations. Personally, I think–Christian or not–your tattoos should be meaningful. But if you are a Christian, the decision is between you and God. It is about conviction, and God gives us each different convictions. It does not make us wrong or right; it simply means He has spoken to each of us differently. For me, I have not felt a personal conviction against tattoos, and I don’t think my tattoos diminish my relationship with Christ. Each of mine have meaning: I have a fleur-de-lis on the inside of my left wrist, a calligraphy quote of “love never fails” between my shoulder blades, and the paw prints of both of my cats on my left ribcage. I thought long and hard about each of these, and I do not regret a single one.

I am currently in the works of finding an artist to create my next one: a sea otter floating in kelp for my right upper arm. I have thought long and hard about this one, too, and I have prayed about it as well.

Each of my tattoos represents something about me. They are just a beautiful, outward reflection of my passions. Just like my heart is a reflection of my love for my Savior.

. . . . . .

Do you have tattoos? What do you have? What do your tattoos mean to you? Do you want any? What do you want and why?

Stronger

“He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength…But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” — Isaiah 40:29 & 31

. . . . . .

I know I have gotten stronger in this season–physically, mentally, and spiritually. For me, these three components really intertwine. If I feel good physically, it has a ripple effect through the other areas of my life and I become more positive. I’ve struggled with self-image my whole adult life (so far), so feeling good physically has helped to improve my mental state.

Many Christian friends of mine have tried to pour the “typical Christian” wisdom into me–all that matters is what God sees; you are made in His image; He calls you beautiful. The problem is when my depressive symptoms present, I don’t hear that. Instead, I hear all the negatives. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. I knew I needed to do something about that negative voice, so I started a different exercise regimen. Not only has it helped me to manage my anxiety and depressive symptoms, but it’s also encouraged me. Because here’s how I see it: if God calls me loved and beautiful, then I deserve to make myself feel the way He sees me.

Really, what it has done is make me stronger.

I know I’m stronger physically because I can run faster and for longer and have a shorter recovery time. I can lift heavy things–like cat litter and my 45-pound dog–and it feels easier than it was even six months ago. I don’t have as much knee pain as I used to, even though that is an issue that will probably never go away.

I know I’m stronger mentally because I’m not crying the minute my mind because spinning. I can take a step back and be a little more objective. Don’t get me wrong–I still have days where I just want to cry, and on those days I allow myself the release. Once I do, I can walk away from those feelings, confident they were dealt with. I still overanalyze and play things on repeat–because that’s what anxiety does–but I’m getting better at stopping the cycle. I made friends, and I make plans with them, neither of which I had dreamt I could do a year go.

I know I’m stronger spiritually because I am more patient. I have constant silent prayer to God, sometimes just whispering “Jesus.” I go to church every Sunday and worship with my whole heart, something I didn’t think I could do a year ago. I write down my favorite Bible verses. When something starts going in my head, my first line of defense is to look up a related verse.

I’m far from perfect, though. I sometimes cheat on the nutrition in the exercise program, but I’m better about not beating myself up for it. I do still have negative self talk, but I’m better at combating it. I sometimes let my daily life get in the way and forget to seek out time with the Lord or put Him first like I should. But I know I’m not where I was.

. . . . . .

I know I’ve written on strength before, and I probably will again. Gaining strength is a part of the growing process, and it’s continuous. We don’t just stop finding or gaining strength–everything we encounter helps us dig a little deeper and be a little stronger. When we are weak, when we think we cannot possibly go on, that is when God gives us strength. My storm is far from over, but I am, so far, proud of the person I have become. I feel like I am getting back parts of me that I lost, and that takes strength every day.

Just like picking up new and heavier weights is hard, picking up pieces of yourself is tough. You have to decide how the pieces fit back together. You have to decide if you will include everything or only some things. You have to decide who you are and who you want to–and are meant to–be. You have to look at yourself in the mirror every day and be satisfied with who you are. Are you?

Telling Your Story

If you’ve been a follower of this blog for any amount of time, it’s likely that you’ve seen it go through quite a few changes to this point. Seasons, if you will. Like I’ve gone through.

When I started blogging, I wasn’t really sure where I was going with it. I’ve known since college that I want to write, and blogging was sort of my “introduction” to getting “out there” (whatever that really means). But it was more of a public journal, with the only message being “I’m here” and maybe the attempt at online community. As I progressed in my writing, as life happened, and as my seasons changed, I began to feel that wasn’t enough.

When I started taking my writing more seriously, though, I wanted the message to be “you’re not alone,” but I was suddenly afraid. It meant telling my story, and I wasn’t sure if that was “safe.” I wasn’t even sure if I should. After all, who wants to hear my ramblings of my struggles? What I have gone through and continue to go through isn’t near as bad as what other people have suffered through. I’m not even that good.

This change was another opportunity for the enemy to come in and tell me lies. He wanted to take my writing, he wanted me to believe his lies about my abilities–that I was incapable, that my words would never matter–and not Truth. He had been doing a number on my head for years, and here he saw another opportunity. I’m a Christian; I shouldn’t struggle with anxiety. If I have anxiety, it means I don’t really have faith.

But then I encountered a podcast episode from Proverbs 31 Ministries–the podcast that actually jumpstarted my decision to make this blog a true part of my life. And do you know what it was on? Yup–anxiety. And there is one message in that episode that really hit home: seeking outside help does not make you any less of a believer.

And there it was. The truth I so desperately needed to hear as I was on the brink of an episode.

I have been seeing a therapist, but I had felt shame in the need. I have toyed with the idea of medication for my anxiety because it causes me to miss valuable hours of sleep. My therapist even provided me a letter for Belle, assigning her officially as my Emotional Support Animal. But the guilt welled inside me. And suddenly, here I was, listening to other Christian women say that seeking help is good.

This made me realize that maybe other Christian women need to hear the message that they are not alone, just like I needed to hear it.

What’s more is my church began a sermon series a week later called Crash The Chatterbox, and the first message on insecurity laid right on my heart. The minute my pastor said, “who told you the gifts God has given you will not make an impact?” I felt the  tears begin to well up and my soul felt ripped. Because that was exactly how I had been feeling for a while.

The thing is that “you’re not alone” is a strong and much-needed message in the lives of Christian women–heck, in the life of any woman. We all seem to think we are alone, that we are the only ones who suffer, that no one can possibly understand. We feel others will judge or shame us: “they live such happy lives, they couldn’t understand”; “if I tell them about my situation, they’ll tell me how it’s my fault”; “I can’t reveal the truth because I’ve put on a mask for too long.” When the truth is those “others” have probably also faced similar circumstances and we just didn’t witness it, and they are probably just as desperate to share their story to someone who would listen.

Besides, how do we have the Bible? Because Jesus’ disciples decided to tell their stories. And their stories impacted the world.

I’ve learned a valuable lesson: telling your story is important. It doesn’t matter what it is. Do not compare it to others’ stories; your story is your own. And your story is special because it is yours. God’s impact on our lives was never meant to be a secret–every time He does something, we are to shout our praise and give Him the glory and point others to Him. And how else do we do that than by telling our stories?

A Racing Heart

My mind is tangled. My heart races. I can’t breathe. No matter how much I try to regulate my breathing, I can’t calm it down. So I sit in a type of silent pain, waiting for the hours to pass.

. . . . . .

This is what my life is like a lot of days. Struggling with anxiety means your head hardly has a quiet moment. Sometimes it has to do with a situation or event, sometimes it doesn’t. My anxiety has been around since at least high school. I think I hardly noticed it in school because anxiety and stress is “expected” in college. When life after college got out of my control, my anxiety “came back”, and it did so with a vengeance.

As a Christian woman, I have been given the “Christian answers” to my anxiety:

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made know not God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” — Philippians 4:6-7

“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” — Jeremiah 29:11

But these didn’t really help because I didn’t understand what was behind the anxiety. And there is something behind the anxiety: a voice whispering all my insecurities.

You’re not really qualified for that job, so don’t even try.

You’re not a good woman or a good wife; it’s no wonder you’re struggling. He doesn’t want you. Who would?

You’re a terrible dog-mom. You don’t know what you’re doing at all.

But that isn’t God. It’s the enemy. And I have to tune out the enemy or I will continue to suffer.

“The voice you believe will determine the future you experience.”

If I continue to give space to the enemy’s voice, I will experience an anxiety-ridden, miserable future. If I choose to turn my mind to Christ, though, I will experience His peace, love, and mercy–and a more positive future.

Over one year ago, I felt a nudge that I felt was from God. I felt like He was telling me that what was about to happen would lead to a positive future. But then things crashed around me, and I began to question if I had truly heard Him.

And that is when the enemy comes in and whispers lies: Did you really hear from God? Did He really tell you that? Maybe He really doesn’t want good things for you. He’s just watching you suffer, and He isn’t going to do anything about it.

But getting out of my head long enough to even try to focus on God’s voice and promises can be a lot. It can be emotionally draining.

. . . . . .

I had to find something to get out of my head. So I started taking exercise more seriously. I began running–and have even done a few 5K races–with my dog, Belle, and I was finally utilizing the exercise facility at my apartment. I noticed a difference within days. My mind was focused on running pace and number of reps, so it didn’t have time to entertain any more lies.

Exercise helps me refocus my energy and push myself in positive ways–in ways that will make me physically and mentally stronger. Adding Belle to the mix actually helped my head because I became focused on our combined abilities and we bonded.

 

Even with music in my ears, I often start to silently pray, especially during races. This helps my spirit and it makes the time fly by.

And when I get home from a run, I feel motivated to read my Bible and journal.

. . . . . .

But some days are better than others. Some days my heart races for no reason. And if that happens when I’m at work, I have to wait it out until I can go on a run. Today was one of those days. As I was running, lies began to seep in again: you won’t make 3 miles. Just give up now. Stop trying. But I didn’t listen; I pushed through. And when I refocused my energy on my music, on running with my dog, on the moment, I was able to push that whisper away.

My story with anxiety isn’t over. There are so many other components–exercise and nutrition, therapy, practices. But I know God has plans for me, and I believe that now. I am better at discerning what is God and what is the enemy. And that is progress.

. . . . . .

Do you struggle with anxiety? What do you do to manage it? Is there a way you could manage it better?