living with the heat in your life (a biblical understanding for life’s weather)

how people changeOur church’s Sunday school is studying “How People Change” as one of the two classes offered for adults. [Insert shameless plug here: my pastor-husband has done an incredible job over the past five years of revamping our Sunday school so that it’s now something worth attending for an extra hour each Sunday – there are usually two classes offered, one that’s a biblical-theological track with a team of professors and educators from our church teaching through the Bible and one that’s practical theology] I introduced the DVD yesterday, and the topic was focusing on the “heat” aspect of CCEF’s model for change. [CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, is where I did my counseling internship, and their counselor-professors taught the counseling courses I took as part of my M.A. in Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary.]

Identifying the “heat” in your life, or the weather, as I think it would be more aptly named, is the first place to begin in the process of change. Sadly, I’ve observed all too often that this is where ministry, friendships, and counseling/therapy can stay. And we are missing so much! The “heat/weather” in our lives is important, and there are equal dangers of either maximizing or minimizing it, but more often than not, we cannot change the “weather” of our lives in a similar way that we cannot determine the weather of our days. We learn to identify it, even understand it and possibly predict it, but at the end of the day, the weather is one of life’s givens. Our response to life’s weather is where change happens, or not. Where there is growth, or stagnation. Where there is joy mined through the depths of suffering, or a heart becoming bitter and resentful. And if we are honest, we have observed both tendencies in our lives. Right now, there are life situations I’m responding to with bitterness, and there are also life situations I’m responding to with hard-fought joy.

Without further ado – my intro to the DVD is below:

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What is “heat”? Of the following scenarios, raise your hand if you think that it would qualify as “heat”:

  1. Discovering that raccoons have been nesting in your attic for several months
  2. Going on vacation to the Caribbean
  3. Being sick with strep throat
  4. Finding out that you got a job promotion
  5. Moving across country for a new assignment
  6. Having a baby
  7. Getting asked out on a date by someone you’ve admired from afar for a long time
  8. A break-up of a dating relationship
  9. Your child getting first place in a competition
  10. Winning the lottery

Most likely, it was easier for you to identify the “bad” things than the “good” things as “heat,” but heat refers to both. I think a broader way of describing heat would be “what’s the weather in your life?” Sometimes it’s beautiful and sunny; other times (like this week!) it’s cold and rainy and cloudy. Weather can last for days on end, or shift from hour to hour. And so do the circumstances in our lives, and the opportunities for our hearts to be revealed shift constantly. In fact, I think this constant shifting is part of the “weather/heat” that reveals our hearts! Just when you’re enjoying a very pleasant season with your children, one of them gets sick – and then you get strep – and then she stays sick and you’re isolated and frustrated and angry with God. (True story of our past month in the Nelson household!)

And isn’t that how we view our “heat”? The circumstances in our lives? The biggest problem I face in my own heart and that I’ve observed through my years of counseling ministry is this tendency to blame the weather for my heart’s response. It’s why parents get such a bad rap – we’re always blaming them for every bad quality in our lives. It’s why I expect in marriage counseling that it will take a few weeks (at least) to begin to get down to work – because both of them tend to blame the other as the problem. It’s why I can get sucked into complaining as my primary mode of communication: I really do see my primary issues as my circumstances … and if only my kids would get well, my work schedule would calm down, my husband would listen better, summer would come, then I could live the godly life I know I should be living. Or at least be happy.

As you watch this video and discuss it afterwards at your table, and then reflect on it personally, think about the ways that you tend to blame the “heat” for your problems.

In many ways, this is the easiest week of Sunday school because “heat” is the easiest and first thing that we recognize in our problems. Let me present to you two tendencies that you may find in yourself – and consider this as we dive into this week’s lesson:

  • Over-focus on (maximize) the heat: This is the M.O. for most of us. It’s why we blame our spouses for marriage conflict, and why I think that if I lived in a bigger house, life would be easier. It’s why I think that once my kids are older and better behaved, I’m going to enjoy them more and be able to fully be “myself” again.
  • Under-focus on (minimize) the heat: This is less common, but just as distorting. There are some of you who tend to blame yourself so much that you never take into consideration the “heat” of your life as something that’s contributing to your heart’s response. You assume that your struggles today are always because of the sin in your heart. An example of this is someone who’s experiencing panic attacks. As she begins to tell me about them, and I am hearing the stress of her past year (moving, job change, parenting and marriage difficulties, health problems), it seems obvious to me why she’s having a panic attack. It’s her body’s reaction to so much external stress/heat. When I point this out, she has an “aha!” moment – she didn’t see it because she discounted the real impact of the circumstances of her life. This may also be your tendency if you’ve been abused – you tend to take on the shame of your perpetrator’s sin against you, and you assume the abuse occurred because you deserved it, or you were/are a bad person, or you didn’t lock your door at night, or you wore something inappropriate on a first date. Absolutely not! Part of the “heat” of a victim’s life is the way he/she takes on what’s not meant for him/her to take on – and part of believing the gospel truth will be the ability to disown the shame handed to you by the abuser, and to say, yes, the abuse was/is a major part of the “heat” of your life but it’s not the whole story nor is it the end of the story/your story.

This is inherently a hopeful message – to realize that “heat” is just that – the occasions/circumstances in your life that reveal your heart – because none of us can change much of our life’s weather anyway. To focus on changing what’s unchangeable brings great frustration. You usually cannot significantly change your “weather” – the past abuse, even the good things like job promotions or vacation – but you can always by the power of grace and the Spirit change your response to the weather. Naming heat as “heat” frees you to start focusing and prayerfully engaging your part – what can change – instead of getting frustrated by being stuck in what you cannot change (or what may never change –  e.g., you can’t rewrite your past).

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7 heart-revealing truths about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Last night I had a hard time sleeping. I tossed and turned until finally I did what you’re never supposed to do: I reached for my phone from my bedside table. I began browsing about SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and it confirmed what I’ve suspected for several years now. I struggle with seasonally affected moods. I learned that I have many of the hallmarks of SAD:

  • Begins in September-October with a noticeable dip in mood
  • Worsens until March
  • Disappears with an elevated mood and renewed energy almost overnight – within 1-2 weeks when spring arrives in April/May
  • Characterized by carb cravings, decreased energy, increased sleeping, general sense of irritability and loss of enjoyment in previously enjoyed activities
  • 70% more likely for women than men
  • Less common in countries close to the equator (Might this include states, too – any of my Florida or So. Cal. friends struggle with SAD?)

The next question is what to do about it? The almost unanimous agreement is that light therapy is the #1 way to combat it. (Outdoor exercise and healthy eating are also helpful.) So next on my list is purchasing a light lamp. For you my readers, do you have any experience with a light lamp? Any particular one you would recommend or not? I have a friend here who loves hers, and says as long as it’s 10,000 lumens, I’m good to go. Worth noting from my middle-of-my-sleepless-night research is that optimal light therapy looks like 30-45 minutes of exposure to the light lamp first thing in the morning, with noticeable results within 3-5 days and for as long as you continue with light therapy.

This got me thinking about what’s the spiritual benefit of my struggle with SAD. What SAD does for me is reveal my heart, exposing aspects of my life that I wouldn’t choose to see if I stayed relatively emotionally “happy” or positive most of the time. I came up with 7 heart-revealing truths about SAD:

  1. SAD exposes my tendency to overly depend on my emotions instead of God
  2. SAD reveals how I idolize happiness
  3. SAD demonstrates my over-desire to escape all forms of suffering instantly (get me a light lamp STAT!)
  4. SAD reminds me that my natural bent is to turn inward and isolate myself instead of reach out for help to God and others
  5. SAD forces me to accept the reality of a world in which all is not perfect – where brokenness and literal darkness exists
  6. SAD shows me in living color the way that I try to blame those around me for the problems within me (exhibit A: increased irritability toward my kids and my husband)
  7. SAD becomes a metaphor for life without light – a built-in reminder that as much as my body and emotions need physical sunlight, even more so my soul needs the Light of the World, the Sunrise from on high, to dwell within me and illuminate my life.

I will continue to research a good light lamp, but I want to also engage God with my heart – bringing to him my struggle, complaints, irritability and asking for grace to repent, to reach out in love to others even when it doesn’t feel as “easy” as in summer, and to humbly remember my place as dependent on Light in all its forms.

light

reflections on my story

20140617-071914-26354591.jpgTen days ago, I celebrated a milestone birthday. Not one of the big “decades,” but one that felt significant nonetheless. Birthdays are great opportunities for reflection, and every year I enjoy writing a bit about the year prior and anticipating the year ahead. In March of this year, I did a retreat that could be the title for my story: “When Good Girls Get It All Wrong.” This past year has been a year of realizing more and more of the ways I get it wrong when I trust my goodness instead of God’s abundant grace. My story is one of the prototypical “good girl.” I am the oldest of three children with two younger brothers. I attended private Christian school through eighth grade and my worst nickname was “Goody-Goody.” The transition to public high school was terrifying and faith-activating. While experiencing being made fun of for being a Christian, my youth pastor wisely identified this as a form of persecution for my faith. And all of a sudden, God’s Word came alive to me. Passages like this one in 1 Peter 4:12-14 made sense to me for the first time:

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”

When it was time for college, I ventured out to Wheaton College, hundreds of miles from home. I still am amazed at that courage as an 18-year-old who had never lived anywhere but my small hometown in South Carolina. Those four years were full of long, important conversations that can happen in the context of “all freedom/no responsibility” and halfway through college, grace flooded in for this good girl. I was months away from being a Resident Assistant to a hall of 50 freshmen and sophomore women, and God found me through his grace as I realized how much I needed him. I could not rely on my try-harder goodness to carry me through what had become a crippling bout of anxiety-induced insomnia. The summer between my sophomore and junior year is fondly remembered as “the summer of grace,” when grace flooded into my Christian life – transforming what had been black-and-white into full color. Not unlike when Dorothy in Oz travels from tornado-torn Kansas to the yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City.

I will fast forward a few years to the next major turning point of faith for me: Christmas of 2003 which was bookended by news of both parents’ cancer diagnoses. Yes, you read that right: BOTH. My mom received her diagnosis December 23, and then when we gathered as a family again on December 31, Dad shared that he, too, had been diagnosed with cancer. My parents had always been healthy, and I had taken them for granted. This shook me as a young finding-my-way elementary school teacher who assumed life would continue as it always had. The gift to my faith in the midst of this season of questions and wondering how I would make it through is that I questioned. Really questioned and had to wrestle with a God who did not guarantee “the good, healthy and happy life” to his people. I often felt like I was questioning alone – because so many in my well-meaning Christian community jumped to, “It’s going to be fine!” or wanted to give pat answers that failed to connect with my heart. This journey through questions, doubt, darkness prepared me for the next stage of calling: pursuing a graduate degree in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary outside of Philadelphia.

My parents both survived (and have been cancer-free for over a decade) and my faith deepened; and the gift of counseling has been the gift of walking with others through their questions, their pain, their suffering; their untold stories of tragedy, grief, loss, abuse, dreams imploding. And it has been the gift of witnessing hope emerging, slowly and painfully at times like a butterfly getting used to its new wings as it emerges from its cocoon. My own hope rehabilitation journey in seminary included the unexpected gift of meeting and marrying my pastor-husband, who persevered despite much resistance from this battle-weary woman who had been through a few too many break-ups by that point to easily entrust my heart to another. Being married to him has been good and beautiful and hard and sanctifying all at the same time, often in the same moments.

And then we had twins. I have talked about my journey of motherhood often on this blog, so I’ll leave it to prior posts to fill in those gaps. [suggested: Trusting God When You’re Expecting, Part 3: A New Chapter Called “Bed Rest“;  Tiny Miracles; Twins: The First Month; Confessions of an Angry Mom, part 12, & 3A Prayer for Potty TrainingTears and TransitionsFor the love of poetryIdentity lessons from “Angelina Ballerina”The one voice that matters mostMind the gap]

Needless to say, for two control-freak parents addicted to self-sufficiency and independence, twin daughters has by far been the best and hardest part of our lives as we find our way back to grace over and over and over again.

Where am I now? Full of anticipation for the next years or decades of life left before I go Home. I want to write. I want to write of hope amidst imploded dreams and war-torn hearts. I want to give voice to suffering and permission to speak of tragedy and to ask the hard questions we too often paste over with faith platitudes. I want to connect with you, my faithful readers, friends, family. I want to hear and share stories yet untold and unheard. To celebrate grace and life and beauty in all its forms, and to beg for redemption and healing for all the pain that creeps in uninvited. I want to laugh, to create art, and to unleash creativity in a million little ways. Join me? I’d be so honored.

 

 

A Time to Read and a Time to Write

In thinking about life as seasons, I believe that the book of Ecclesiastes gives much wisdom in its most well-known (and oft-quoted) passage about the passing of time – and what different times are for (Eccl 3:1-8):

1 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,

4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,

5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,

8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

We have recently transitioned from our “time of saying good-bye” to a “time of saying hello” and are coming out of our “time of adjustment.” The grocery store doesn’t feel so foreign anymore. I don’t usually get lost going to the places I need to go in a week. We are making new friends. I have my two favorite classes at the gym that I schedule my week around (Casey’s awesome TurboKick class and Becky’s BodyFlow class – combo tai-chi/yoga/pilates). I now go to ballet class with two friends on Wednesday evenings where I’m learning how to pirouette (and arabesque and demi-plie …). Church is beginning to be filled with more people who are familiar rather than unfamiliar. Women’s Bible Study started two weeks ago. Seth & I have begun weekly tutoring with underprivileged kids in Norfolk, and we had week two of our community group tonight. Counseling is gradually picking up week to week.

imagesAnd yet even in the midst of so much going on, I’ve been in a season of reading rather than writing. I know there’s a lot to process still, but I’m enjoying a “time to read.” And that season will eventually (like tonight) overflow into a “time to write.” On my bookshelf right now:

Freakonomics by Levitt/Dubner – reading this for book club – more interesting than I thought it would be, as one who is certainly NOT economically inclined

In The Company of Cheerful Ladies the 6th in “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series by Alexander McCall Smith – the fictional series about a female detective who sets up shop in a small African town in Botswana – very interesting read!

Undoing Depression by Richard O’Connor – it’s been surprisingly refreshing to read as an honest look at depression and its treatment – though not from a Christian point of view, his viewpoint does not readily espouse any one particular psychological school of thought and he advocated for ideas that I see as being answered fully with a Biblical worldview. Here’s his commentary on the series of various psychological theories over the past few decades:

“Now most new ideas are being touted as paradigm-shifters. The concept is in danger of losing its meaning by being trivialized. But the fact is that the Freudian theory of human functioning has been on its last legs for some time, and we wait for a new theory, a new paradigm, to replace it. … New medications have helped literally millions of people, and understanding certain problems as physiologically rather than psychologically based has changed somewhat how we think of ourselves. But although there is a wish to achieve a biochemical theory of human behavior, our current knowledge leaves us far from it; and if we had it, it would not answer our most interesting human questions. (p. 51)”

Talk about a set-up for a “new” paradigm to be introduced! Yet one that has been in existence since the beginning of the world … And especially since my philosophy is that these “most interesting human questions” cannot be answered except by the author of those most interesting humans, God Himself.

There’s one more segment that I found especially poignant as well:

“Anyone who defines himself in terms of other people is at risk for depression. The more sources of gratification one has in one’s life, and the more predictable and controllable those resources, the less risk for depression. If a woman is taught to define her worth in terms of keeping her husband happy, she is too dependent on an arbitrary and capricious source of gratification. If she is taught that her worth is measured by raising happy and successful children, her self-esteem depends on forces over which she really has very little control.”

Although O’Connor’s point here is to show how cultural expectations contribute to more depression in women than men (who primarily define themselves by a “more predictable source of gratification” in their jobs), his observations ring true to Biblical teaching. St. Augustine said “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” And there is warning after warning throughout the Bible not to put your trust in people but in God. We are created in God’s image, and so we are created to glorify God. How do we do so? A modern-day theologian, John Piper, summarizes Biblical teaching well when he says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Again and again there are invitations throughout the Bible to “come, you who are thirsty, come and eat …” (Is. 55) and “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). So certainly any counseling for one struggling with depression should include attention not only to the physical aspects but also to the underlying spiritual aspect as well – which is a soul desirous of a closer relationship with the Creator and Redeemer.

In my “cue” to read next is Beautiful Boy about a father’s journey through his son’s addiction. No more light summer reading for me!