Transforming the Anxious Mind

One of the things I’ve seen over the last ten years is more and more people I minister to are struggling with anxiety, fear and worry. I’m not talking about the anxiety one gets when you don’t receive a lot of like’s for your Facebook post or when you are texting a friend and watch the parade of bubbles on your phone anxiously awaiting their response. I’m talking about anxiety that cripples.

I believe we all know what its like to be afraid when confronted by a threatening stranger, or to be anxious before a test or job interview, or to worry about the outcome of a medical test. Can you even imagine living in a state of perpetual calm, free from uncertainty, risk, danger, or threats? Fear and anxiety are a part of life, and often a useful part, at that. Fear warns us of an impending danger, like when our car starts to slide while driving in the rain or when a suspicious character comes knocking on our car window at a red light. Feeling anxious can motivate a person to be better prepared for an important staff meeting or to take extra precautions when travelling to an unfamiliar part of town that is somewhat sketchy. Since we need them to survive, it would be dangerous to eliminate all fear and anxiety from life.

But not all fear and anxiety experiences are good for us. For some people, anxiety becomes overwhelming, characterized by excessive and persistent feelings of apprehension, worry, tension, and nervousness over everyday situations that most people face with little concern.

Seventeen years ago when I moved here to take a position with The River Church Community I began to experience apprehension, nervousness, and worries over my work. Surrounded by men and women that had graduated from some of the finest universities in the country I began to doubt myself, and my ability to succeed in that office environment. I found it difficult to sleep at night as I worried about personal finances and how would I survive if I didn’t improve at work, many of my insecurities became a chorus of fear and anxiety in my head. People who I confided in told me how great I was, how gifted I was, but nothing could quiet those anxious and fearful voices within me. My mind was generating an endless list of possible catastrophe’s—“I won’t be effective as a pastor, I’ll fail to meet my goals, I won’t have enough money to live on if I lose this job, nor will I be able to contribute to my retirement savings, and so forth.”

I found not only was I not sleeping well but also I was easily agitated, unable to relax, irritable, with an occasional angry outburst. I’d even break down in tears at times for no apparent reason. My worries were relentless and impossible to control. Despite my best efforts at distraction and reassuring myself that everything will be fine, I had this sick feeling deep in the pit of my stomach that my life was unravelling.

The verse so many people quoted to me during those difficult times was I John 4:18 (NKJV), “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines torment as “great physical pain or mental anguish; a source of harassment or pain; to pester or annoy.”

This best describes what I was going through seventeen years ago. My feelings were unstable. Fear and anxiety rushed in so quickly I found myself backpedalling as fast as I could. This separated me from God’s comforting and reassuring voice. Sometimes our pain and our fears can speak louder than the voice of God. There are times where our fear and anxiety paralyze us, cripple us so we attempt to “put on a happy face” because our pride and fear of what others would think of us if we admitted we were on the verge of a breakdown.

Ephesians 4:27, “…and do not give the devil a foothold.”

When we passively accept these fears and anxieties, we have given the devil a foothold to harass us. He comes in and magnifies, terrifies and torments us with these fears, worries and anxieties. Some of us have also given him a foothold by allowing our pride and fear to keep our weakness hidden. Without Christ, we have no defense against the devils accusations.

God’s response to my fear and anxious thoughts was repeating himself over and over again, “I am with you.” But my anxious thoughts kept pushing God away believing I hadn’t done enough to deserve God’s love and grace. John Wesley calls this a “scrupulous conscience.” As a perfectionist, I had a pretty fragile conscience, low self-esteem and tons of guilt that acted as barriers to receive His words of assurance and grace. Yet God did what he does best, he just kept repeating himself.

God was revealing more of himself to me through these simple words. The constancy of His steadfast love was like an ice pick attempting to break up the iceberg of fear and anxiety within me. He was challenging my belief that was rooted in the abandonment I felt from early childhood that “no one cares for me.” This was the root of my fear and anxiety. That was the memory that needed to be healed.

Not sure why but when I would pray (more like cry) for God to heal me I’d grab one of the many crosses I had on the walls of my room. He began to reveal to me that the cross in my hand was a symbol of His love for me. So I began to grab one and set it before me every time I prayed to remind me of God’s love for me. So not only was His voice reassuring me of His presence but also the symbol of the cross was reminding me of His love. God was demonstrating to me His patience, mercy and love to me. This spoke to that critical voice in my head (my stepfather) that demanded I get over it! “Suck it up and get back to work.”

God was bathing me, immersing me in His perfect love. The words he had spoken to Isaac and to Moses so many years ago he spoke to me, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” God spoke words of comfort and promised His presence. I eventually responded in faith. God’s presence is our remedy for fear, anxiety and worry. Without the awareness of His presence, we cannot be empowered to face our fear, anxiety and worry. And we cannot know His comfort and security.

I think it was Ed Welch from one of his books who said, “If the kingdom of heaven was going to come with power, the old order would have to be terminated.” And this was what God was doing through His repeating that He was with me.

I’ll end with two scriptures and a quote that has built a solid base within me.

Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

This “you are with me” mindset has to be fostered, developed otherwise we resist the grace of God that he gives. This pressing into God is warfare against that resistance within us. This resistance doesn’t allow healing to take place. Our healing starts out as small cups of living water that eventually become rivers to flush out the fear and anxiety.

Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Intimacy: “In our rapidly changing society we can count on only two things that will never change. What will never change is the will to change and the fear of change. It is the will to change that motivates us to seek help. It is the fear of change that motivates us to resist the very help we seek.”

Lastly, the prophet Isaiah takes the closest human relationship and says that the Lord’s faithfulness and presence are even more certain.

Isaiah 49:14-15, But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born? Though say may forget, I will not forget you.”

God’s grace, kindness and steadfast love drove out these fears, anxieties and worries that had kept me bound for months. Perfect love is revealed to us as we abide in God’s love. 1 John 4:16 tells us, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfected in us.’

“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.

Our Fallen State

In the last two months, the country has heard about and read a lot of apology statements from famous men accused of inappropriate behavior towards women. This provides some in the faith community an opportunity to finger point and shake their head towards high profile politicians and actors. But before we cast the first stone we should be mindful of our own sin.

Having been in ministry for over thirty-years and much of that with men, I was not surprised to hear these stories and realized this is just the tip of the iceberg. I pause to be quick with my judgments due to the fact that my own history reminds me of how in my fallen state I am capable of similar acts.

Matthew 7:3-5 tells us about paying attention to “planks” in our own eyes. This is a good reminder to remain vigilant about what lives deep within our heart.

For years I minimized my own dishonoring of women through the belief that I was just being compassionate and caring. Underneath that façade was a hunger to gain their attention and affection. It was a misuse of power and seduction to convince them to trust me and to like me. Fortunately, nothing ever happened physically but it was born out of a deep brokenness within me.

Feeding off the vulnerabilities of another is unfortunately too prevalent in the ministry world and has brought many a good leader down. To remain aware that our hearts can be divided and influenced by unmet emotional and physical needs is key to remaining clear in our relationships with women. I speak not only to paid and lay leaders but all men that follow Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

The model of masculinity that I grew up with was my stepfather and he was dominating, controlling towards women and emotionally shut down. His view of women was broken and unhealthy along with the culture I grew up in that saw women as baby making, dinner preparing, and house cleaning maids.

Most men who I have ministered to did not have good role models in their lives when it comes to how to treat a woman well. I believe many want to do what is right and honoring yet lacked the guides to teach them well. So their examples are found on television, YouTube, Netflix and the culture that they grew up in. The cultural depiction of what a man is proved flawed and the results are false expressions of masculinity.

Left with false notions of what is masculine and feeling the pressure to prove it to other men we seek it through our sexual prowess. Men who don’t know how to meaningfully engage with a woman attempt to use their power to control them. We are misdirected in our search for our masculinity identity.

As men, we do not want to address the ways in which we have dishonored women. That would mean no longer lusting after them, no longer going online and spending countless hours searching for the perfect one to fantasize about and no longer attempting to seduce them with our clever and witty words. Thus we remain quiet about the subject of dishonoring women.

Where does one look for healthy models of men honoring women? Jesus wonderfully models for us the standard on how women are to be honored for their beauty and their unique gifting. The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus honoring women and advocating for them in different life situations.

Nudged by God the Holy Spirit to reexamine my view and treatment of women His guiding search lamp revealed my error. He revealed to me the subtle ways and obvious ways I was dishonoring women. Convicted by God the Holy Spirit, I confessed this sin to another brother taking my first step towards the healing of my unhealthy view of women. Repentant, I invited Jesus into my heart and asked Him to give me His heart to love women well.

Let me mention just so you understand it took many encounters with God to reveal to me the lack of honor and respect I failed to extend towards women throughout the years. There were many I felt led to contact and make amends with.

During this process of inner healing, I recalled a memory from my childhood that deeply affected my view of women. My stepfather instigated wrestling matches between my older sister and me. She being bigger and stronger almost always pinned me down to the floor. He would then cackle, “You let a girl beat you!” Helpless, I remember thinking to myself, “No woman will ever control me like that again.” This vow created a barrier within me that kept most women at arm’s length. It served to keep me from having to deal with more pain in my relationships with women. This vow and the power associated with it had to be renounced and I also had to repent of judgments I had made towards all women. It was amazing how my heart opened towards women once I broke that vow.

The cultural attitudes toward women in Jesus’ day were regrettable. Women were treated as second-class citizens. Jesus restored value to women and treated them with honor and respect. He extended hope and help to women that had bad reputations that other’s looked down upon.

Where is Your Treasure?

Since leaving my position three months ago at The River Church Community to devote full time to The Healing Path Ministries I have found myself, and I am embarrassed to say, coveting other people’s treasures that symbolize to me financial comfort.  A good definition of coveting that defines what I’m talking about is “to desire that which is rightfully another’s.” It might be their home, car, well paying job, whatever, yet it is revealing to me some deep insecurities and vulnerabilities about money.

The shift wasn’t subtle. It rose within me days after leaving staff knowing my career; future and ministry depended solely on God’s provision. I know, I know, why didn’t that exist when I was working for the church for sixteen years? Honestly, I just got comfortable knowing the check would be deposited every two weeks.

Noticing anxious thoughts beginning to pop up in my head I decided to “kick it in gear” and start some groups to make money. But, God desired to deepen His partnership with me and led me to read the gospel of John. He made it quite clear there was, “no need to prove to yourself and others that you are worthy.” I begged him to let me do something and He made it clear not to do anything but “remain in Him.” Isn’t that typical of us men? Just give me something to do. Let me prove my worth.

Hopefully, you didn’t miss it wasn’t just money but also fear of not producing in a way that I thought would keep my supporters pleased. ARGH! Oh, foolish David, who has bewitched you?

In reading the gospel of John I saw Jesus live His life in prophetic exchange with the Father. Jesus was modeling for me what it looks like to depend and to remain in Him. Jesus, ongoing dialogue with the Father brought him wisdom and understanding on what he was to do, when, who with and where he was to go.

What am I learning? Radical trust. Not easy because anxious thoughts want to crowd out the voice of the Father and the Son. But isn’t this the battle we all have in believing that God is faithful and trustworthy? This battle for our heart and what it treasures, it serves and looks to for life and comfort.

“There is no God”

Sometimes after I work out at the gym I love to sit in the sauna to enjoy the heat and the release it provides my body. Last Wednesday I went in late to work out and then hit the sauna. There were two other people in the sauna when I entered. Right after I sat down an older woman walked in and observed a man across from us reading a book. She blurted out, “What are you reading?”

At first, he didn’t respond and then after some thought he told her it was a book about management. She then told him that he should humble himself and read the Bible. Cringe!

He told her that he tried to read it one time and it gave him a headache.

She then proceeded to talk about heaven and hell, humbling oneself, and his need to get saved!

That got his attention and he yelled at her, “There is no God!”

Now he got my attention. As I asked God in my mind, “What should I do?” He impressed upon me that it wasn’t my conversation and that if I did speak it would be out of a place of emotion and not love. I must admit I was hot! And not in the physical appearance sense or because I was in a sauna, I wanted to introduce that guy to my fist!

A few minutes later I left and when I began to drive home God the Holy Spirit began to remind me of passages to give me understanding. He reminded me that at one time I was “dead in my trespasses and sin,” and that my “understanding was darkened.” That I was alienated from God because of my sin and that I “loved darkness rather than light.”

It was this diagnosis that eventually brought me to receive Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. My “blindness” and “darkness” were indicative of my ignorance of the truth.

There is nothing like a lesson from God the Holy Spirit to humble a person. Okay, I get it. Rather than hate this man my heart probably should be breaking for him and crying out that he’d “come to a knowledge of the truth.”

I got home and knelt down by my bed and asked God to forgive me for my anger and hate towards this man. I asked God to give me a greater capacity to love and prayed for the nameless man in the sauna at the 24 Hour Fitness in Sunnyvale. Now that I think about it perhaps I should’ve prayed for our sister whose style of evangelism might need a tinge more grace.

A Search for Self

As I prepare for our final teaching, Boundaries: Why We Need Them, for The Healing Path class that I lead on Monday nights I’ve been thinking about my own past struggles with a lack of boundaries and codependency.

Someone recently used the words in describing someone “he is always yielding to the needs of others.” That struck a chord in me. Early in my walk of faith, my yielding to the needs of others and not wanting “to make waves” mentality stripped me of any sense of self. I could tell myself that I was being a servant of the Lord but as I like to say that’s just putting a Christian bow on what should be called a turd. We like to call our brokenness a gift when in fact it is born out of a past trauma that has yet to be healed. At the core of my acting out was a deep wound that didn’t trust. I grew up in a frightening and unsafe environment and it brought about what I would describe as a deep, core paranoia instead of trust.

I am pretty sure what my codependency provided me was an identity. That seems to have been my search for years and I tried different ways of finding it. Codependency was one of them. Enmeshing with those I was attracted to you was yet another way. Sacrificing my sense of self, my identity and independence in order to preserve what I thought were important emotional relationships. I paid a high cost in anxiety, loneliness, depression, frustration, and anger. True love (attachment) remained elusive.

I guess that begs the question, what does love mean? Love for me at that time was a needy possessiveness of another person. I would constantly blurt, “I love you” just to hear the words said back to me. Those wonderful words of assurance were like a life preserver to my hungry soul.

To come to a place of a healthy and mature love I had to realize my endless quest to find my identity and love could only be found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. That took some doing because I honestly believed I could keep “bargaining” for it and receive that sense of self I was so desperately looking for from others. The work was difficult and deep and took many years but through a relationship with Jesus and a loving community, I came to understand that I could be myself without losing love.

The Power of the Cross

Luke 9:23-25, Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?

This verse from Luke was my Lent reading for the day and during my time of reflection I thought about that word “daily.” Jesus stipulates to be a disciple of his you must “daily” pick up your cross and follow Him.

One of the questions I asked myself was, “Am I with great passion and delight taking up my cross daily?” I want to lie and tell you “of course I am.” ARGHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!

The booklet I am reading on a daily basis describes that when Jesus offered this teaching it must have been “gut-wrenching” to his audience. They knew what the symbol of the cross meant: “a death in utter agony and humiliation.”

I believe this might be the hardest thing for me to do. Having learned “the way of the cross” from male and female mentors I can testify it is “gut-wrenching.” There are days that I don’t want to feel the weight of it calling me to die to some furtive glance that my flesh desires or to be honest with friends about how I’m really doing? I still have to war within to confess my sin to another because my flesh resist “the way of the cross.”

Isn’t it funny, crazy, insane, how a word sprinkled with the power of the Spirit can remind us of the truth that has brought freedom in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Going the “way of the cross” identifies us as His disciples.

I’ll leave you with those famous words from one of my favorite Hymns, “I will cling to the old rugged cross,

Sunday Sermon Reflection

On Sunday Hermie Smith gave a short testimony about having a Christ centered conversation with a man while soaking in a hot tub. The ease at which he entered into that conversation made it sound so easy. And yet I know from my own experience that trepidation and uncertainty cause one’s heart to beat a bit quicker.

It made me think about Matthew 11:12 that talks about “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men and women lay hold of it.”

I did a little leg work and found that the most recent Greek-English Lexicon gives four possible definitions of the Greek word (biazo) used in this verse: (1) “to inflict violence on, ‘dominate, constrain,’ (2) to gain an objective by force, ‘use force,’ (3) to go after something with enthusiasm, ‘seek fervently, try hard,’ or (4) ‘constrain (warmly).’

I am not a theologian so not sure which one fits. But as I think about Hermie and his actions I can line that up with some of the definitions above. Laying hold of the Kingdom and then radically risking to share it is a huge risk. But Jesus didn’t die for us so we could just “do” church. We are a walking revelation that must be expressed. Don’t hide your light under a bushel. It means we serve humanity on practical levels—practical according to the Kingdom of God is bringing the “invasion of the impossible.” I think I got that from Bill Johnson at Bethel Church Redding.

So much uncertainty, chaos and confusion has many of us checking the news sights on our laptops daily to see what the Helsinki has happened overnight. Rather than come under the uncertainty and anxiety that we see on our screens every day, ask yourself, “How does God want me to bring solutions for the world’s dilemmas in my community, workspace and family?”

I have a sense that God is birthing something in His church and in The River Church Community as we enter this season of life. Let me remind you that if you’ve ever given birth or observed one it is a violent, radical event. But we signed up for radical. We are use to plucking out our eye that causes us to sin, bringing not peace but a sword, counting the cost and giving up everything for the treasure hidden in the field.

I believe we are being radically charged by God to do whatever it takes to follow Jesus and to do the works (feed the poor, heal the sick, and bring justice to those that are not receiving justice) that He did.

Jesus is asking for our hearts, our allegiance, our obedience, and our willingness to risk all to follow Him. Isn’t that what the verse says? “Everyone,” who becomes part of the Kingdom is forcing his way, pushing through the door, seeking to enter while it still possible, making every effort into the Kingdom.”

I think this verse says it quite well.

The Magnificat

I recently spoke about Mary’s song found in Luke 1:46-55. I focused on the humility demonstrated by Mary to come present to God’s speaking voice and Presence.

Her humility reminding me of a parable that Jesus shared in Luke 18. Jesus tells this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt. It is a story about two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector.

The tax collector in the parable knows he is an utter mess. He stands at a distance, unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven and beats his chest and says, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”

There’s another man, a Pharisee. I can imagine him walking into the temple and everyone greets him. He’s comfortable, he’s confident in a religious setting. He prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

The humble person never appeals to merit. “Look what I’ve done for you God.” The humble person always appeals to God’s mercy. The humble person comes before God and says, “The only way I can come into your presence, the only reason you answer my prayers is because of the gift of your Son and his death on the cross for me!”

The proud say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” They lack humility, not realizing they are “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” They lack what I call “heart awareness.” They struggle to answer the question honestly, “How is your heart?” Many don’t realize their heart is diseased and in need of Jesus cleansing and healing touch.

Without that humble posture we stop hearing the healing and sustaining voice of God. We start listening to the voices of the world to tell us how we’ve arrived and accomplished what others can only dream about.

What if…?

I’m in Hawaii relaxing on the beach and I’m watching a father I’d guess to be about thirty-five and he is in the shallow water with his three-year-old son. They are having the time of their life as dad tosses him in the air and catches him right as he hits the water. I’m smiling at the joy I see in their bonding together as father and son.

As I turn my outward gaze into an inner one the thought comes to mind, “What if?” What if my father played with me at the beach, engaged with me at a level where he delighted in me so that I could delight in him. That “what if” has been with me for a long time. Yes, I have my Father in heaven that speaks tenderly and lovingly to me yet there is something really deep within me that wants to be fathered by a person with flesh. Why can’t I get that “what if” to go away?

In my thirty years in ministry I’ve heard about the failures of absent fathers and incompetent fathers and emotionally detached fathers, and passive fathers and controlling fathers and narcissistic fathers and irresponsible fathers and perfectionist fathers and abusive fathers and any other fathering failure anyone can express.

I realize I am not the only person, man or woman, that has the “what if” deep within. I’m not the only person that asks, “How would things have been different if dad was different?”

Who can redeem and heal anyone from this wound? Jesus says that one of his primary missions on earth was to introduce to the human race the perfect ideal Father who would heal the father-wound that is in all of us because of less than perfect ideal fathers.

If that’s true am I doing something wrong? Why can’t I shake that “what if” within me? I choose to believe this is the process and one day, one day, that “what if” will be gone and I’ll see Him face to face.

Consider the Lilies

Luke 12:27-32 (NKJV), Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith?

“And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.

“Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

I keep thinking about all the beautiful mountain flowers I saw while I was in the Rocky Mountains last month and how I was drawn to gaze upon them with wonder. Walking up a trail (at around 10,000 feet) with my much younger friend who seemed hell bent on getting to this rock formation to explore; I kept slowing him down with all my oohs and ahhs. He went ahead and I “considered the lilies.” Maybe it is old age and I’ve just learned to appreciate the beauty around me. Or maybe it was the altitude and I was bent over just trying to breathe. Whatever the case, my gazing helps me to bask in the wonder of God’s creation and thank Him for it. This gazing brings an inner smile that comes from centering myself in God and His magnificent creation.

For The Healing Path alumni that might be reading this I guess you could say I was practicing “how to be” rather than “how to do.” I was with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord and being inwardly transformed by it.

Now what do you think would be the response of most men if I told them to go to the mountains to “consider the lilies?” If it were in Colorado they’d probably think I had been smoking some of the local legal pot. But, this guy who works in construction, actually he is a carpenter told me to do this. And he is telling me to do this so that I won’t worry! And the funny thing is that when I do it most of my worry, stress and anxiety kind of go away.

As I walked back down that trail (obviously I never made it to the rock formation), I heard God, my Father, whisper to me, “I’ll take care of you.” Honestly, that might be the nugget that will carry me through the rest of my life.

Guys don’t laugh, but it might be time to plan a “Consider the Lily” day. You have a Father who loves you and wants to speak His peace and comfort into you.