General

General

Breathing

A woman lifts her face and takes a deep breath.

As the holiday season gets underway, here’s a quick hack that will reduce your stress levels: commit to taking one or two brief breaks everyday in which you will focus only on your breath. You needn’t be a Buddhist to recognize that the right kind of breathing exercises can help you feel more peaceful. The reason for this calming effect is based on the way God designed our bodies.

Let me explain. Whenever you’re faced with an emergency, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Your muscles tense up, your heart beats faster, your blood pressure increases, and adrenaline begins coursing through your body. The body’s 911 system is preparing you for an explosive burst of energy to enable you to make a fight-or-flight response. Though the system is superbly adapted for dealing with immediate dangers, such as fending off a mugger or escaping from a house on fire, the sympathetic nervous system will wreak havoc on your body and your mind if it becomes chronically activated, which is exactly what happens when you’re under constant stress.

By contrast, the parasympathetic system lowers your heart rate, decreases your blood pressure, and enables you to rest. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic system, increasing your sense of calm.

Here’s how to do one breathing exercise. Begin by sitting up straight. Then exhale fully through your mouth. Breathe in deeply through your nose and into your abdomen, letting it fill with air. Hold your breath for two to five counts and then exhale slowly through your nose. Try doing this for five to ten minutes on a regular basis. To enrich the time, begin by imagining yourself in God’s presence, thanking him for how fearfully and wonderfully he has made you.

Yeah! Go, Grandpa!

An image of a grandfather holding hands with his granddaughter as they walk down the sidewalk.

Peter Secchia is a successful businessman and former U.S. ambassador to Italy. When he was sixty-seven, he and his three-year-old granddaughter, Thea, were walking down a Seattle street. As they headed toward a shop selling cinnamon buns, Thea was startled when a thirty-eight-year-old man tried to grab hold of her hand, identifying himself as a policeman and saying she had to come with him.

Secchia, a former Marine, wasted no time. He punched the man as hard as he could. Then he held him down between two parked cars until police arrived. Afterward a detective from the Seattle police force remarked,

“Anybody who’s read the [police] report is going, ‘Yeah! Go, grandpa!’ That’s the kind of grandpa I want my granddaughter to have.”1

Jim Cymbala tells a similar, though less dramatic, story. “Some years ago,” he says, “I was taking my granddaughter Susie on a walk when a couple of homeless men came walking toward us. Their scruffy appearance made her afraid. In her little mind, she thought she was about to be harmed. She was already holding my hand, but instantly I felt her push her body into mine as she grabbed onto my pant leg. ‘Papa!’ she whispered. Of course, I put my arm around her and said that everything was going to be all right. The men passed us on the sidewalk without incident.

“Inside, my heart was brimming. That instantaneous reflex of reaching out for my aid meant that she thought I could handle anything and everything.. . . She showed that she had a deep faith in me. I would come to her rescue. I would meet her urgent need. I would take care of her.”2

Jim Cymbala and Peter Secchia—two grandfathers whose love provides a glimpse of the Father’s love for us. Let’s make God glad by pressing into him whenever we feel anxious or afraid, trusting he will meet our urgent need.

  1. Kyla King, “Secchia Wallops Man Who Menaced Grandchild,” Grand Rapids Press, February 21, 2004.
  2. Jim Cymbala, Fresh Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 48.

Treasures Out of Darkness

An image of the sun shining through the tops of white-capped mushrooms on the forest floor.

The tears were welling in my eyes, my heart a mixture of wonder and sadness. Wonder that so many had gathered for my neighbor Dale’s funeral and sadness that he was gone, taken down by cancer. When my daughter asked about my tears, I had to explain that they weren’t coming from a heart completely filled with sorrow. The tears were also expressing a deep joy that came from watching people love each other and remind each other of the truth that Dale and everyone who belongs to Christ are destined to live forever.

The funny thing about our hearts is that they are capable of holding more than one emotion at a time, even when those emotions are polar opposites. The darkness is like that, too, often yielding treasures that will produce more light. As Jerry Sittser observed when he faced the terrible grief of losing three of the people he loved most, darkness invaded his soul. “But then again, so did light,” he says. Both contributed to his transformation.

He goes on:

“In other words, though I experienced death, I also experienced life in ways that I never thought possible before—not after the darkness, as we might suppose, but in the darkness. I did not go through pain and come out the other side; instead, I lived in it and found within that pain the grace to survive and eventually grow. I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

The key for Jerry—and for all of us—is not whether there will be times of darkness but how we will respond to the darkness when it comes. As he says, “We do not always have the freedom to choose the roles we must play in life, but we can choose how we are going to play the roles we have been given.”1

1. Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 36-37.

 

 

God Sees You

An image of an extreme closeup of a very large leaf.

What is so remarkable about seeing someone sitting under a tree? When I was in Nazareth a few years ago, I saw a fig tree that made a story from John’s Gospel come to life. When Jesus is gathering disciples, he is brought to Nathanael by Philip:

As they approached, Jesus said, “Now here is a genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity.” “How do you know about me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus replied, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.” John 1:47-48

The tree I saw in Nazareth was covered with enormous leaves attached to branches that extended low to the ground. To snatch a few moments of peace and quiet, all you had to do was sit quietly beneath the tree. Even people passing within inches of the tree would not know you were there. That’s what Nathanael must have been doing.

Notice that Jesus saw Nathanael sitting beneath the tree, but he also saw further than that—into the secret places of his heart, pronouncing him an honest man. Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus reminds me of a story in the Hebrew Scriptures in which a homeless woman encounters God and names him “the God who sees me.” It’s a wonderful story of how the Lord cared for Hagar and her child in the midst of a brutal wilderness. To find out more about this story, take a look at Genesis 16 and Genesis 21:8-21.

Jesus’ encounter with Nathanael assures us that nothing is hidden from the Lord’s penetrating gaze. Not our struggles or our joys, not our fears or our dreams. He knows us as no one else does. Take time today to worship Christ and decide, as Nathanael did, to follow where he leads.

The Only Way Into the Light

A person reaches their hands towards the rising sun.

Jerry Sittser tells of an experience shortly after he lost his wife, his mother, and his four-year-old daughter in a tragic accident. As he stood in the funeral home looking at three open coffins, he felt himself slipping into dread and oblivion even as people tried to comfort him.

Days later, he says,

“I dreamed of a setting sun. I was frantically running west, trying desperately to catch it and remain in its fiery warmth and light. But I was losing the race. The sun was beating me to the horizon and was soon gone. I suddenly found myself in the twilight. Exhausted, I stopped running and glanced with foreboding over my shoulder to the east. I saw a vast darkness closing in on me. I was terrified by that darkness. I wanted to keep running after the sun.”

Though Jerry found the dream unsettling, his sister later pointed out that

“the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.”1

That was a turning point—the moment Jerry realized he could not run from his sorrow; he had to face the darkness of his grief. Three years later he wrote a book that has become a classic on the topic: A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss.

As I write this, it is early November. The days grow shorter. The light wanes. Try as I might, I cannot run back to summer, reliving its warmth. The only way forward is to head into deepest winter. In a month, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere will reach the winter solstice, the point in the year with the least amount of daylight. Each day after that will bring more light until we are once again basking, enjoying the brightness.

As in Jerry’s dream, as with the rhythm of the year, sometimes the only way into the light we long for is straight through the darkness. We go there, not alone, but in the keeping of the God the psalmist acclaims:

“To you the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are the same to you” (Psalm 139:12).

  1. Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 33.

Spin

Asn image of a person spinning a light above their head, creating a cirle of light and shooting sparks.

You may think that “spin” is something that was invented by modern media. But a closer look reveals that the practice dates back to the Garden of Eden. God said to Adam in Genesis 2, “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (verses 16-17). But by Genesis 3, the message had already become distorted. Here’s what the serpent said to Eve: “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?” (verse 1). See how it works? Satan takes a bit of the truth, adds a falsehood to it, and then produces a plausible lie that will insinuate itself into your heart as a question, causing you to distrust God.

Here’s how spin might work on you today. God says he has forgiven you because you belong to Christ. But you know you are far from perfect. You told a lie, you yelled at your children, you gossiped. Even worse, you’ve done these things repeatedly. Instead of repenting and receiving God’s forgiveness, you listen to the voice that tells you sin is despicable. True enough—sin is despicable. But then the voice takes it a step further, implying that you are despicable and that God can’t possibly forgive you. Listening to Satan’s spin on your sins will separate you from God’s mercy.

Or how about this? God says he hears your prayers and will help you. He tells you he will bring good out of even the worst circumstances because he loves you and you love him. Yet your husband lost his job last year and can’t find another or your child is ill and not getting any better. After a while, you stop listening to God’s promises and start tuning in to the voice that says, “God doesn’t care. Give it up. You’re on your own.” Listening to this voice rather than to the voice of the Spirit will spin you into a spiritual depression that separates you from God’s love and peace.

The way to resist the spin Satan wants to put on your life is to lean into the promises God has made—promises to give you a future full of hope. Ask God today to help you listen to the message of his truth so you can faithfully cling to his promises.

Let God Be Your Editor

An image of a close-up of an eraser at the end of a pencil.

A few months ago I finished a book I’d been working on for over a year. When I handed it in to my editor, I thought it was in pretty good shape. Good thing, because I needed to take a break from writing so I could get to the thousand and one things I’d put aside while completing the book.

Weeks passed before the next step in the publishing project, when an editor delivers her critique of the manuscript. Though most writers will tell you they welcome constructive criticism, what they don’t tell you is that in the heart of every writer (especially tired ones), there is the secret dream that the editor will read the manuscript and respond that it can’t possibly be improved.

Since my editor didn’t make my dream come true, I had to roll up my sleeves and dig back into the writing, spending much more time on revisions than I had planned. But the final manuscript was so much better than the one I had initially turned in that I later thanked her for not living up (or down) to my secret dream.

A good editor, of course, performs a difficult balancing act between encouragement and critique. Err on one side or the other, and a writer may become either complacent or frustrated. The editor’s role is to help the writer produce the best work possible. In this regard, editors are a little like therapists or, better yet, like the Holy Spirit. Why? Because the Holy Spirit both encourages and stretches us, giving us hope and convicting us of wrongdoing in order to produce the best life possible.

If the Spirit is uncovering an area of weakness in your life right now, don’t give in to discouragement. If change is called for, then believe change is possible. Embrace it with all the energy and faith you can muster, confident that God will help you to do whatever he is asking you to do.

 

 

 

Scary Places

An image of a person sitting on some stairs is repeated in multi-faceted mirrors.

Have you ever walked through a haunted house? I’m thinking of the kind that pop up in the month of October, close to Halloween. The kind with creaky floorboards crammed full of creepy monsters waiting for the chance to make you scream.

Donald Miller uses the analogy of walking through a haunted house to talk about what it takes to lead people through fear:

“For whatever reason, I sometimes feel like I need to be the guy out front. You know, the guy turning the corners first, feeling the walls, trying to find my way through the maze in the dark. But I assure you, I’m not feeling all that brave up there. I’m feeling terrified, to tell you the truth. . . .

“Leading is like that sometimes. You’ve got a gaggle of screaming, giggling friends behind you. . . . The trick to leading a group through a haunted house is knowing the scary stuff can’t actually kill you. The management won’t let them.

“It’s the same with all the scary stuff we have to deal with, all the fear of abandonment and loneliness and wounds we have to address. They aren’t allowed to kill us. Sure we might feel some fear, and a lot of it. But in the end (even if it kills our earthly bodies), we don’t die. We just come through the other side with a knowledge we faced our fears, and we got out of that haunted house alive, our screaming and giggling friends in tow.”1

I think Donald Miller is right. The only method for dealing with fear is to walk through it, not on our own, but with Christ leading the way. The next time you’re afraid, remember that Jesus is the safest way through the dark.

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  1. Donald Miller, “Leaders Lead People through the Fear,” Donald Miller’s blog, September 23, 2011, accessed May 25, 2017, http://donmilleris.com/2011/09/23/leaders-lead-people-through-the-fear/.

Anxiety Wrap

An image of a pug wrapped in a blanket with only its face peeking out.

My family used to have a wire fox terrier that was terrorized by thunderstorms. Sweet Pea (yes, that really was her name) was trained to stay in the kitchen unless someone invited her into other rooms in the house. But with the first clap of thunder, her training would fly out the window. Racing through the house, she would look for the closest lap to shelter in. On more than one occasion, a storm sent our poor dog into a seizure. We might have helped Sweet Pea by fitting her with a Thundershirt, had it been available back then. This is a garment that wraps around dogs like a coat, applying gentle, constant pressure, which works to calm them down. It is also called an Anxiety Wrap.

Strange as it may sound, this technique also works for some children with autism who wear weighted vests for a few minutes each day to calm their overstimulated nervous systems. No doubt the same principle is at work with infants who are swaddled. The pressure makes them feel more secure.

While most of us don’t need weighted vests, we could all do with our own version of an Anxiety Wrap. Here is the one I’ve developed: whenever I become anxious or fearful, I talk about my concerns with close friends, enlist their prayers, pray, and read Scripture. I also consciously remember how God has helped me in the past, and I thank him for his faithfulness. The more I focus on God and on doing his will, the more peaceful I become. As God wraps me in his grace, I am able to calm down in his presence.

 

 

Standing Ovation

An image of a crowd of people on their feet, cheering.

How many funerals have you been to that ended with a standing ovation? I went to one. It was for my neighbor Dale. He had fought and eventually lost a long battle with cancer. But his life had borne great fruit, touching many people. Dale was a man who loved God and served him humbly as a deacon in his church. I was struck by how everyone who spoke at his funeral talked about Dale in the present tense, as though he hadn’t passed away.

It wasn’t just a case of feeling his lingering influence; rather, most of those gathered believed Dale was still alive. In fact, the pastor who preached the sermon remarked how much he disliked hearing anyone described as “dead.” People die, of course, but the pastor reminded us that death is an event, not a destination. It’s the point at which we make the transition into another life—one that will last forever. The applause at the end of the funeral for this former college football player, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and deacon was given in honor of a life well lived and as a celebration of the life Dale is enjoying right now, face-to-face with the God he loves.

One of my neighbors had the privilege of witnessing the moment of Dale’s passing. His large extended family had gathered in his living room. She watched as they all were drawn to the bed the moment Dale died. Then they knelt down and began to sing. She told me it was the most beautiful thing she had ever witnessed—to see this family’s reaction as their father and grandfather passed into heaven.

I won’t see Dale for a while, unless, of course, my time on earth is shorter than I imagine. But when I do see him, I hope God will welcome me into his peace with the same words I believe he has spoken to Dale: “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).