"Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:6-7).
I've known the words by heart for a long time. I cannot remember when I first learned them, but in this newest season of my life, they've never held the weight they do now. And yet, when I most need the truth these words hold, the circumstance that demands I turn to them renders me nearly incapable of resting in them.
One translation says, "Be anxious for nothing." For nothing.
That's what I can't figure out. It's the nothing part. When I'm awake at 3 am with a full-blown panic attack, awash in anxiety, feeling my heart race (at least, it's what I perceive), and I cannot talk, pray or recite my way out of it, I start asking, "What is this about? What's going on?" And all I can come up with is nothing. I'm all worked up for nothing.
Here two things must be noted, especially for the sake of those who battle with anxiety attacks: 1) Anxiety is a real thing with which many people deal, and I do not make light of its grip, its tenacity or its potential causes; and 2) While others may be able to determine their triggers, all my mental math still leads me to nothing.
My experience with this malady is relatively recent -- the last couple of years, in fact -- and it is consistently both frustrating and faith-challenging. Frustrating because panic attacks are completely out of my control, an agonizing issue with which every human grapples, especially those who are seeking to live life guided by the Holy Spirit, to whom we are to yield all control and surrender to God's leading. Faith-challenging because, as I seek to place my trust and life in God's hands, this feels like an issue of weak faith, though I know it is not.
When attacks like these come on -- and indeed, I believe they are attacks from the enemy of my soul -- I am not anxious, at least from the respect that I was engage in active worry about something. Actually, I've been living in a place of deeper peace than I have in much of my life, only attributable to the abiding presence of God. For this reason, and likely many more I have yet to identify, this whole thing baffles me at my core. I am anxious for nothing, so why am I panicking?
The physical manifestations of panic attacks differ for many: racing heart rate, clammy palms, difficulty breathing, fixation on a thought or idea that only perpetuates the other symptoms. Altogether, these make the perfect storm. The mind plays tricks which cannot be understood, and in moments, complete incapacitation results. Seriously. Not. OK.
I return, then, to the Word from before, written by the apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus. "But in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." In the throes of these attacks, there is no coherent response, let alone a request laced with thanksgiving. I can hardly find the words to say "Help!" let alone an expression of appreciation for God and His generous goodness.
In an effort to be totally transparent, perhaps it is because I am not thankful to be having an anxiety attack. Nor am I willing to lay everything on the table, especially when I'm with someone -- my husband or a friend -- while the panic begins. Who wants to admit they're falling apart and not be able to explain why? It's not even that I don't want to admit it to God; He already knows. His Word tells me that He will offer His peace in return for my petition. And believe me when I say in the middle of anxious moments, I'm dying for -- or at least feel like I might be -- peace.
Yet it's all this... for nothing? At least something should come from this, I think. Until I realize it has.
In the midst of these semi-paralyzing moments of complete physical confusion and chaos, there is one thing that brings peace, though not always seen through immediate physical transformation. External symptoms may persist for awhile, but somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind and heart, I seize hold of a peace that allows the waves to continue to toss my boat while I let go of the oars. The one thing is one word. One name.
When I cannot pray or petition the Father, thankful or otherwise, I just say Jesus. In itself, it is my prayer, my petition, my thanksgiving, my joy, my salvation, my comfort, my refuge, my only response. Jesus.
In that name is a cry for help, a confession of hope. In that name is a salve for my spirit, a peace for my panic. Maybe the modern lyric from 7eventh Time Down says it best: "When you don't know what to say, just say Jesus. There is power in the name, the name of Jesus. If the words won't come... just say Jesus."
I can't help but wonder, when these moments come (thankfully, so very few and far between), if God isn't saying to me as to Peter, "Oh you of little faith." If these moments are brought on by a weak, immature, not-so-sure-about-all-this-one-thing kind of faith.
Instead, I choose to believe that as I speak the Living Word that gives life, the name of Jesus, instead the Father says to me "I Am, here." At once, the sum of all the promises of Scripture come to life: Cast your cares on Me, for I won't forsake you or let you fall. I Am your Refuge and Strength. I Am your always present help when you face trouble. I will give you strength and uphold you with my righteous right hand. Be strong and courageous; do not be terrified or discouraged. I Am with you wherever you go. I am your Light and Salvation; you have nothing to fear. I have redeemed you and called you by name. You are mine. Leave your worries with Me, because I care for you, and I will lift you up. My peace I leave with you, so do not be afraid (Ps 55:22; Ps 46:1; Isa 41:10; Josh 1:9; Ps 27:1; Isa 43:1; 1 Pet 5:6-7; John 14:27).
Could it be, in these moments, I experience a richer understanding of God's peace. All this peace, available to me for nothing, because He is God and He loves that much.
Maybe it's not anxious for nothing after all.
Someone forgot to remind the weather it's November in Ohio. High of 70 degrees yesterday and 75 degrees today with the meteorologists' promises (We know how that goes!) of more to come throughout the week.
While blissful in its deferring of cold temperatures and bone-chilling winds, the uncharacteristic warm air creates havoc with plans to dress a fifth grader. Early morning cold gives way to unnatural heat quickly, so long sleeves, gloves and coats can seem right at 6:30 am and ridiculous at 2 pm.
Nonetheless, I'm grateful for the blessing. This morning it even made national news; the ticker tape across the bottom of the screen identified "unseasonably warm" weather and its impending effects on the rest of the month. That phrase captured my attention: unseasonably warm. It had already been on my mind before I saw the news, but when the television screen started replaying my own thoughts, I stopped and gave pause. Why does that speak so loudly to me?
The only connection I could make at the time -- and still am -- is the familiar rhythm of that phrase with another "warm front" I read about in Scripture: "They began telling each other how their hearts had felt strangely warm as He [Jesus] talked with them and explained the Scriptures during the walk down the road" (Luke 24:32, The Living Bible). When the weather is warm outside, and it shouldn't be, based on the season of the year and typical weather patterns, any deviation from the norm is "strange." This is the same word that two of Jesus' followers used to describe how they felt when Jesus was walking with them on the road to Emmaus, yet they did not recognize who He was.
I don't remember the first time I read or heard this story in Luke's gospel; it was many years ago in my childhood, I'm sure. However, in my adult years, I've always come away from the Emmaus story with a particular prayer on my heart, one that I pray regularly. It goes something like this: Lord, help me know you "on the road" to wherever I'm going, and not just when I get there.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like to walk and talk with Jesus, to literally follow Him as He went about preaching and teaching and healing and turning the Kingdom of God upside down for people. But even as I try to imagine that, I can't fathom what it was to have known Him before His death, and not to know Him after. These followers were intimately familiar with Jesus, the same one who they thought was the Messiah, and yet not able to recognize Him when He was with them again.
They're not the only ones. Mary didn't know Him in the garden, at least not immediately. She thought He was a gardener until He spoke to her. Luke tells us these men were even "prevented" from realizing it was Jesus. At least until the breaking of the bread. Now that's what I call "holy hindsight."
If I'm honest, I have holy hindsight a lot. I can look back on a journey often and see the signposts that show evidence of the Lord's presence. I can often reflect on a challenging season I've been through and see where God was working for my good. But I believe there are times when I may miss Him in the midst of my circumstances, and I so desperately want to see Him then too.
I can feel the disappointment of these men as the bread is broken and they finally see it's Jesus, only for Him to disappear in the same moment. They're looking at each other in astonishment -- Did you see what I saw? -- and then wracking their brains trying to figure out how they missed it: :“Weren’t our hearts ablaze within us while He was talking with us on the road...?" (HCSB). I know I've felt the same things -- a stirring, a wondering, an unseasonably warm moment in my heart -- and still failed to see Jesus on the road.
So I'm praying more fervently these days. Lord, help me know you "on the road" to wherever I'm going. Don't let me miss the warm front when it comes. (Maybe, at my age, I could start calling them "holy hot flashes"?) I understand that sometimes the revelation comes at the end of the journey because God chooses it to be so, but oftentimes my oblivion is driven by my own ignorance and self-centeredness. I don't want to be so focused on myself that I miss the Messiah moment.
Don't get me wrong. Any time I get a glimpse of the holy in the mundane, I'm thankful. If anything, not thankful enough, but I'm exceedingly grateful to acknowledge that God is with me, whether I sense Him with me or not. Still, my prayer is that I'm not so wrapped up in my situation that I miss the times He is literally as close as my next breath and speaking to me. I welcome the "strange warmth" and hope I'll relish it as much as I am right now.
Jesus follower. Wife. Mom. Daughter. Friend. Pastor. Learner.