the-long-leg-hopper

We were late for library story time. Again. We were always late. For everything. As I pulled into the parking garage—it was almost always full at story time—I started praying for a parking spot. And God heard my cry and listened to my supplication. There was one spot left. Blazoned across the concrete floor of the garage in the middle of this spot was the word “compact.”

I drive a minivan.

But I was going to park in that space if it was the last thing I ever did because we…werelate! I nosed into the spot and backed out of it and nosed in and backed out and nosed in and backed out and nearly smashed the passenger side mirror into one of the concrete support posts and swore, loudly.

My daughter, who was five at the time and ever the helpful child, ventured to tell me that there was now another spot available and maybe I should try to park in it instead?

“Shut UP!” I yelled at her. “Don’t talk to me right now! Can’t you see I’m trying to park?!?”

Five years have passed since this incident, but I could tell you a hundred—or maybe a thousand—stories very like this one, stories in which I was anxious and harried, hurried and angry and unkind. That was the story of my life. Oh, sure, I had moments that weren’t rushed, but the overwhelming reality of my life was that I was usually somewhere else—or feeling like I ought to be somewhere else, doing something else. I wanted to be present in my life—and sometimes, thank God, I managed to be—but mostly I felt like I didn’t have time; there was simply too much to do. No matter where I was or what I was doing, it wasn’t where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to be doing, and I felt anxious and hassled and frustrated and guilty.

I was wrecking on the rocks of all the shoulds clamoring for my attention—because I wasn’t lashed to the mast.

*****

In The Odyssey, Odysseus, on his way home from the Trojan War, meets with all kinds of perils and adventures, one of which is the island of the sirens whose song, he’s been warned, is so irresistible that on hearing it men fling themselves from their boats in their mad desire to reach the singers—only to be dashed by the waves against the cruel rocks of the island’s shore. Their bones lie bleached on those rocks, a testimony to the danger of the sirens’ song.

Odysseus, being who he is, decides he’s going to have it both ways: he’s going to listen to the siren’s song and he’s not going to die doing it. He gives his men wax to plug their ears so they can’t hear the song and orders them to tie him with thick rope to the mast of the ship and not to unbind him for any reason whatsoever until they are well past the island of the sirens. His scheme works—he gets to hear the sirens, and though he desperately tries to break his bonds to heed their call, his men cannot hear his cries to be unbound, and they row to safety. Lashing himself to the mast saved his life.

There are sirens in contemporary life, and they are every bit as alluring and deadly as the ones Odysseus heard. One of them is the siren of busyness. Another is the siren of hurry. Still another is the siren of restlessness, or acedia, that insists real life is happening somewhere else. I’m sure you can think of plenty more. These sirens lure us away from the safety of our boats and wreck us on their rocks. I lived my life for years, decades even, in wretched response to their lying clamor.

But not anymore. Now I know to lash myself to the mast. As a Christian, my mast is Jesus. I have to stay close to Him—I have to stay beyond close. I have to remain in Him. Of course I do. He Himself said, “Abide in my love. Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:9, 5). Indeed, apart from Him, I will die, wrecked on the rocks of the sirens.

I wish I could remember what started me lashing myself to the mast on a daily basis, but I don’t. Maybe it grew gradually out of other practices. However it came about, it seems to me this is the foundational practice for a happy life, and it’s very simple.

All you have to do is get yourself alone for a few minutes in a relatively quiet place (this may be the hardest part, yes?). Hide yourself in your closet or your bathroom if you have to. Sit in your car in the garage or a parking lot. Whatever it takes. I like to sit cross-legged and face east, toward the rising sun—to remind me of the risen Son—but this isn’t necessary.

Once you’re alone in a quiest(ish) place, close your eyes and take several deep breaths.

With each inhale, I imagine that I am breathing in the love of God. I imagine that love filling me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

With each exhale, I ask God to take everything in me that would block His love. I exhale my fear, anxiety, anger, pride, perfectionism, envy, self-righteousness, self-pity, scorn—anything and everything that restricts the flow of His love in my life, all that prevents me from receiving and living in His love (and it living in me!).

Sometimes I imagine Jesus before me, breathing on me as He breathed on His disciples—“Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). I imagine I am inhaling the Spirit that Jesus exhales.

That’s it. Simple, right?

But not easy. My thoughts are unruly and wander all over the place. I start thinking about other things and forget to consciously and deeply inhale and exhale. I start composing essays and stories in my head. I remember that I have to do x or y today or that I forgot to do x or y yesterday, and suddenly I feel anxious and harried.

Every time I become aware (there’s the gap!) that my thoughts have wandered away from Jesus and are striking out on the waves for the island of the sirens, I take a deep breath and once again consciously inhale the love of God. I exhale the distracting thoughts into Jesus’ hand. Sometimes I ask Him to burn them up in the fire of His holy love. If I find myself chastising myself for being so distracted, I give those thoughts to Jesus, too—they just get in the way of receiving His love—and take another deep, full breath, inhaling the Holy Spirit in whom I live and move and have my being.

I’ve found it helpful to pray Scripture as I consciously breathe in God’s love for me. (Here are some of my favorites.)

Remember habit 2? We talked about how God surrounds us like an atmosphere, like air. Just as the air around us enters our bodies and gives us life when we breathe it in, so too, Christ lives in us and gives us life when we breathe Him in. Lashing myself to the mast makes me aware of this reality. I’m always breathing, but I’m not always aware that I’m breathing. Christ is always with me and within me—but I’m not always aware of His presence. Taking full, deep, conscious breaths in which I imagine I am breathing in His love and mercy and grace—this helps me to remain present to the fact of His presence. It helps me to live more fully right where I am. It helps me to be happy right where I am because it helps me to see that God is present and active, right here, right now.

That’s habit four: lash yourself to the mast. Start every day with a deep breath of God’s love. During the day when you realize you’re feeling anxious or harried (habit 1) or the harpies are breathing down your neck (habit 3), stop and take a deep breath. Remember you live in Christ (habit 2), and breathe in His love like oxygen—because like oxygen, it is the vivifying force of your life. Over time, you will be surprised by the joy you find because you’re abiding in Christ.

Art: The Long Leg by Edward Hopper, 1935

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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