Bells_of_St_Andrew

{Caveat lector: This post is long. Do not proceed if you are in a hurry.}

I was 13 years old when I let the harpies in. I didn’t even know I was doing it. I couldn’t know how much damage I was wreaking on myself by opening the door to these shrieking uglies. Of course, they didn’t start by shrieking. They wormed themselves along the lines of my devotion to God. “God hates the proud,” they said. “Are you humble enough?” And then they whispered words of condemnation, words that in my youthful naivete I thought were wise words, words meant to humble me and rid me of my pride and draw me closer to God. I could not have said this then. I did not know what I was doing, or what the harpies were doing.

Twenty-six years later, they had become part of me, the ugly soundtrack in my head. They screeched with delight over my every failing. Every time I raised my voice or, God forbid, actually yelled at my kids, they’d keel over in gloating glee. “You yelled at your precious children? These creatures God entrusted to you! That’s awful. That’s terrible. You’re a horrible mother.”

Every time I questioned my calling as a writer, they’d cackle and cry, “Writing is a waste of your time. No one reads your words. Clearly, you’re not very good at this. You’re a fraud, a poser, a loser.”

Every time I felt overwhelmed by my life, they’d spit poison in my ears. “See,” they’d hiss through their blood-red lipstick, “you can’t hack it. You’re weak and pathetic, and you’ll never be any better than you are now. You’re a joke and a failure.”

My thoughts ran their constant litany of accusation, fear-mongering, self-pity, self-loathing, self-flagellation, and condemnation.

My spiritual director, Margie, had been telling me for ten years, “Kimberlee, you know that’s not the voice of God, right? You know that God’s voice is a voice of love.”

And I had nodded and said yes, which was true. I knew that God loved me. Of course I did. I was a cradle Christian. I’d been actively trying to follow Jesus my entire conscious life. How many millions of times had I sung “Jesus Loves Me” or some other song that proclaimed the love of God? Of course I knew those ugly voices weren’t God’s.

Except I didn’t. And I didn’t know that I didn’t know until one December morning when Margie said something that turned my thought-life upside down. Or rather, right side up.

If the scene were a cartoon, we’d be pictured sitting in the small room at the back of Margie’s house, where we’ve been sitting and praying every month for a dozen years now. Through the windows at my back and hers, you’d glimpse the bare branches of trees against the gray winter sky. In a speech bubble coming out of Margie’s mouth would be, “blah blah blah crucifixion process blah blah blah.”

Seriously. At the time it felt as though I had cotton in my ears that suddenly and only for a moment got pulled out so I could hear those two words: crucifixion process. But those two words were what I needed.

I started up in my chair. “Margie!” I interrupted her. “That’s it! That’s it!” I stared at her with wide, wonder-filled eyes, trying to articulate the blinding flash of clarity her words had wrought in me. “All my life I’ve thought those voices in my head were the crucifixion process. I thought they were keeping me humble or—or somehow sanctifying me. I thought they were the path of salvation, the way of dying to myself. But it’s the voices that need to be crucified!”

Words cannot express the revolution that had just taken place in my thinking. If I had a personal devil whispering the harpies’ words into my mind, he would have been writhing in agony at that moment, cowering in fear because I’d found him out, gnashing his teeth in anger that his days of power over me were drawing to an end.

*****

On another gray December day a year later, I woke feeling anxious. At that time, anxiety was still not uncommon for me, but it had been a long time since I’d woken up feeling anxious. The day devolved from there. By mid-morning my heart was pounding and my hands were shaking.

There was nothing to be afraid of. No saber-tooth tigers lurking outside the door. No ugly emails in my inbox. No school, even. A day off! Yet all I wanted was to curl up in a ball in my closet and cry.

You see, the harpies were shrieking ugly words in my ears—words like fool and failure, like poser and imposter, like greedy and grasping and hypocrite. And they were flashing ugly visions before my eyes—visions of public humiliation and everyone laughing at me and me too stupid to realize it, visions of my children as adults scorning and vilifying me, visions of a future marked by failure after failure after failure. And of course, they wrapped all this ugliness in a veneer of spirituality, making their fear-mongering words and images seem like Visions from Heaven, like foreknowledge from God Himself.

The harpies were loud that morning, and they only got louder the longer I covered my ears and pretended not to hear. The worst thing to do was the very thing I most wanted to do: cower in my closet and cry. It makes them so gleeful when I curve in on myself, and when they’re gleeful, they’re even more spiteful. So I put on my tennis shoes and took a walk. I breathed the crisp cold air and noticed the frost-covered leaves lining the sidewalks and jaunted down to my favorite little park with a bench overlooking the Sound.

Even as I walked, part of me was still curled up in a corner of myself, cowering in childlike fear of the harpies. Part of me was holding the cowering child, crooning over her and cradling her the way I’d cradle my daughter if she were scared.

And part of me was standing between those two and the harpies—a warrior queen defending her people from shrieking, fear-mongering, spiteful, wing-flapping hags. That part of me was wielding a sword—the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God—which she had drawn from its sheath in the belt of truth. I had learned a few things in the year since I’d had that epiphany in Margie’s spiritual direction room, and they were slowly seeping into my heart, slowly becoming the truth I lived by, and I knew that the only way to get rid of the harpies was to grab them by the throat and look them in the eye and fight their lies and and half-truths and less-than-half-truths with Truth:

  • God never discourages. Take heart, Jesus said. To take heart means to have courage. The God who commands us to fear not, to take heart would never dis-courage us.
  • God’s voice is never a voice of condemnation. Conviction, yes, but never condemnation. These accusing, condemning voices drive me into myself. God wants to draw me out of myself.
  • These voices scream and shrill and harp and ridicule. God speaks in a still, small voice. God is gentle and does not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick.
  • God loves me. And these voices definitely do not.

That was my last big battle with the harpies. Oh, they flap around a bit every now and again, especially when I’m tired or stretched too thin, but I’ve got their number now, so they can’t make the inroads they used to. They can’t blind me with their lies. They can’t curve me in on myself in fear and trembling—because I know that God loves me and upholds me and strengthens me (more on that next week).

That is habit three on the journey from anxiety to joy: silence the harpies. They will kill you if they can—and God is not willing that any of His children should perish. When the harpies start clamoring in your head, cut out their tongues. They are not you.

And they are certainly not from God. Cut them off. They cause us to turn inward, to live in fear. And God says, “Fear not!” God says, “Come forth!” God says, “I love you, and nothing can separate you from My love.”

Say it with me, friends: God loves me. Say it till you believe it. Say it till you receive it.

God loves me.
God loves me.
God loves me.

Say it till the harpies in your head shrivel and die.

Photo credit: Bells of St. Andrews, St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Riverside, California.

Cast the Circle

For my 35th birthday my dear friend Susan gave me a beautiful old copy of Streams in the Desert, a 19th century devotional book. A week later my twins were born. One of them was in critical condition at death’s door. His lungs kept collapsing, and he had to be ambulanced to Seattle Children’s Hospital. As I lay in bed, weary from labor and delivery, and helpless to help my baby, I picked up the book Susan had given me a week before and opened to the day’s reading. The words could not have been more perfectly timed:

“No matter what the source of the evil, if you are in God and surrounded by Him as by an atmosphere, all evil has to pass through Him before it comes to you.”

That image was deeply comforting to me in those dark, scary days, when we were not sure if Ben would live or die. Looking back, I see that it was true: God surrounded us and strengthened us. We could have been so much more frightened than we were. With babies in two different hospitals and two young children at home, we were stretched thin, but we found strength to endure the days of uncertainty and copious driving from hospital to hospital to home.

Ben lived, thanks be to God (and to the dedicated doctors at Children’s!), and I never forgot that image of God as atmosphere, buffering the hardship and difficulty that comes into my life, not unlike the way earth’s atmosphere burns up meteors. But it took five years before I began to appropriate the truth of it and actually live as though it were true.

Two summers ago, Susan and I were talking about how life hits me so raw, about how I so often found myself in the middle of a reaction before I’d had time to contemplate how I wanted to respond. It had been a few months since my aha! discovery that the important thing about minding the gap was minding it, not where it was. Still, it was exhausting, all that anxiety and anger and fear coursing through my veins and me running to catch up with it and stop it in its tracks.

Susan said, “Cast a circle, Kimberlee. Take your reaction and put it back outside yourself. Create space between you and your reaction so you can see it.” She stretched her hands arms-length in from of her, palms out, like a double palm strike to block whatever was flying at her. “Make a shield,” she said, “and put the reaction you don’t like on the other side of the shield.”

Her words and the image of God as an atmosphere that I’d carried with me since the day of the twins’ birth clicked together in my mind. God is the shield around me, and everything that reaches me goes through Him first. If I feel I can’t handle it—if it’s making me super anxious, say—I can grab it and place it outside what I have come to call my Jesus-shield.

And so I began to intentionally inhabit the image of God as atmosphere. I imagined—and I continue to imagine—Jesus surrounding me. I imagine myself standing in the circle of His love. I remind myself that whatever comes to me comes through Him.

When I feel anxious or afraid, I no longer run or get busy or freak out or even try to figure out why I feel anxious (anxiety will create a reason for itself, and the reason is almost always a lie or a blind, so it’s usually counterproductive to ask why). Instead, I acknowledge it: “Wow. I’m feeling super anxious right now. That’s interesting.” And then I listen to my body: I notice where the anxiety is—usually it’s in my chest, sitting on my heart like a weight, but sometimes it’s in my gut and sometimes in my throat or on the top of my head—and I touch that part of my body and imagine I am grabbing hold of the anxiety and lifting it out of myself.

Then I stretch out my hand as Susan showed me and, imagining Jesus standing before me (because He is!), I place the anxiety in His hands. “Lord, I don’t want this, but I seem unable to get rid of it, so I’m giving it to you. Would please burn it up in the fire of Your holy love?”

In the beginning, I had to do this a lot—sometimes I did it many times a minute. I will be honest: at first, it was exhausting. But within a month, I noticed I wasn’t having to grab the anxiety nearly as often, and by the end of a year, I could go whole days without feeling the least bit anxious!

This is not to say I’m never anxious—I still am, sometimes—but I found that (over time) the more I gave the anxiety to God, the less anxiety I felt. And when I do feel anxious these days, it doesn’t hound me the way it used to—ramping me up, keeping me busy and moving, anything to try to get rid of the horrible feeling that plagued me and insisted something catastrophic was about to happen. Giving that awful, overwhelming feeling to God over and over and over again robbed it of its power. When it comes, it’s far less overwhelming than it used to be, far more manageable. I am no longer at its mercy because I know what to do with it. I know Whom to give it to—and I know that He is trustworthy and will do far more to help me than I can ask or imagine. I know this, because He has, and does.

That’s habit two: cast the circle. Imagine Jesus standing before you, surrounding you like an atmosphere—because He is! Make the motion if it helps: hold your arms straight out in front of you, palms turned outward. Then move your arms out to your sides, as if you’re creating a barrier an arm’s length away from your face and body. Let this motion remind you that Jesus is standing about you as a hedge of protection, and that everything that comes to you passes through Him first.

{Last week you practiced minding the gap—that place where you have the freedom to choose your response. Now, when you get to the gap, and you realize you’re feeling anxious, grab the anxiety and place it outside your Jesus shield—as often as you have to. When we live in the circle of God’s love, we know peace and joy like we’ve never known before. But don’t take my word for it. Cast the circle for yourself and see.}

Photo by Claudia Heidelberger, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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As I was heading out the door to take my husband to the train station, I grabbed my cell phone. Immediately a cascade of anxiety washed through my body and with it the remembrance that a friend was angry with me. I stared at the phone in my hand, remembering our interaction the night before.

In years past, I would have fallen asleep with that phone conversation gnawing at me, replaying it over and over again in my head, and I would have woken up with it weighing on my chest. I am a people pleaser, highly sensitive to other people’s responses to me, and I do not like friction in my relationships. Of all causes of anxiety, relational friction (whether real or perceived) has always been the most common for me. But I’ve experienced so much healing from anxiety in the past two years that it wasn’t until I picked up the phone that I even remembered about that unpleasant situation, and by the time I’d dropped my husband off at the train and was headed home—a mere ten minutes—I was fine. The anxiety was gone.

*****

Three years ago, I found myself directing my homeschool co-op. I had zero leadership experience, and I realized pretty quickly that if I didn’t want to fall flat on my face or ruin the co-op and my relationships there, I was going to need some help. So I turned where I always turn when I need advice or encouragement or wisdom: to books. The book that matters for our purposes here is 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, which I’d read in my 20’s and which still sat on my shelf. Re-reading it in my late 30’s created a paradigm shift from which all the other habits I’ll discuss fairly quickly cascaded.

Covey’s first habit is “Be Proactive.” Part of that chapter is a discussion of Viktor Frankl’s discovery in a German concentration camp that in a dire situation in which he was cruelly and brutally mistreated, abused, and even tortured, he still had control over one very important thing: himself.

Reading Frankl, I was reminded of an old Buddhist story I’d heard in grad school about an army general bursting into a monastery and finding an old Zen master sitting calmly on a rock in the garden. The master remained unperturbed as the sword-wielding general advanced. “Why aren’t you afraid?” the general demanded as he sliced his sword through the air. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the man who can cut off your head!”

“Yes,” the Zen master replied. “And I’m the man who can let you.”

At the time I both marveled at and was appalled by the story. But it’s a story similar to Jesus’s—He Himself said He could call down a legion of angels to deliver Him, but instead He let the Romans crucify Him. His choice was harder than the Zen master’s—He had power to fight back and win, and He chose instead to submit to what looked like loss and suffer all that entailed.

How, I wondered, reading Frankl’s words again, how do you get to be like that?

Covey, following Frankl (and countless others), insisted that there was a gap between stimulus and response, that you could choose how to respond. This was not new to me. For years—decades, even—I had been told, “You can’t control what happens to you. You can only control how you respond to what happens to you.” And while I acknowledged the theoretical truth of that claim, my understanding remained only that: theoretical. I had little, if any, experiential understanding. It seemed to me that I was already responding before I ever had a chance to choose how I would respond.

When I picked up my phone that morning, anxiety flooded my body before I could even think about choosing a response. So how exactly did one access that supposed gap between stimulus and response? For me there was no gap. The stimulus and my response to it were simultaneous.

And then it dawned on me: I wasn’t responding; I was reacting—and my reactions were knee-jerk, reflexive, emotionally overwhelming ones. I was right: there was no gap. I was immediately anxious or angry (or whatever). I couldn’t stop a cortisol or adrenaline response in my body—that reaction was so tightly bound up with whatever prompted it that I was in the middle of it before I even knew it had begun. I couldn’t choose that reaction.

But—and here’s where the paradigm shift happened—I could choose how I responded to that reaction. I could not choose not to have those emotions—but I could choose how I responded to them. And the craziest part is that as I consistently chose my responses to these unwanted emotions, the emotions themselves gradually lessened!

At first, it was hard. I would often be well into an anxiety reaction before I even realized what was happening. I was on auto-pilot, doing what I’d habitually done for years: being anxious. Often it would take hours before I clued in. But when I did, that was the gap. At that point, I had a choice to make. Would I continue to react in this anxious way, feeding the anxiety with frantic activity or worried thoughts? Or would I breathe deeply and give the anxiety to God? (More on that next week.)

As I practiced noticing my emotional reactions and responding to them in a thoughtful, rational manner, I began to see a fundamental shift in my way of being in the world, a shift from knee-jerk anxiety to calmness, collectedness, peace, and joy. A shift that enabled me to experience victory the morning I picked up my phone: I felt anxious, yes, but there was an “I” greater than the anxiety, who was able to quickly, easily, and effectively respond to that anxiety and move forward with joy into the rest of my day.

That is the first habit for a happy life: Mind the gap. It might not be where you think it should be (or where you want it to be), but it’s there. Once you find it, pay attention! That’s where your power to choose lies. At that gap, you can choose how you will respond, whether to the stimulus itself or to your own knee-jerk reaction to that stimulus. Either way, there’s a gap. Mind it.

{Next week we’ll talk about what to do once we’re aware of the gap. For now, simply practice being aware of it.}

 

 

Photo by Anders Adermark, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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