Why I’ve Been Gone: All The Sunday Mornings Never Prepared Me For This

This was me this fall, except not as cute. [Click photo for credit.]
I think I’m finally ready to tell you what’s been going on, where I’ve been. The past three months, when my writing slowed and eventually stopped, have been a blur. Not because they’ve gone quickly – they’ve been excruciatingly slow most of the time. But because I am still trying to make sense of it.

What just happened? 

To say I just walked through the most debilitating season of anxiety I never even imagined would be only part of the story. I never thought it would happen to me. Not me, the pastor’s wife, the social worker, the inspirational writer.

But it makes perfect sense, really. Let me rewind a little.

I’ve always believed in God, I think. At least, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t. But more than believe, I knew how to speak about God. I learned early how Christians behaved. And perhaps this has been my life’s greatest struggle.

I had an unfair advantage, growing up in a conservative, Evangelical home brimming with theology books, pro-life activism and a television that never turned on, unless it was the election season or the NBA Playoffs. I prayed a prayer to ask Jesus to come into my heart when I was five. I remember the prayer and telling my parents and they were pleased.

From watching my parents, I knew Christians read the Bible and prayed so I did those things. I think I meant it. I never remembering hearing or feeling God, but that never seemed like a prerequisite for the actions.

I kept a list of people I prayed for, and I invited my neighbor friends to give their lives to Jesus like I had. I read the biographies of missionaries and reformers like Hudson Taylor and John Wesley before junior high. Amy Carmichael, a single, female missionary to India, was my personal hero. I dreamed of moving to India to become a missionary like her when I was old enough .

My brothers and I attended Christian, then Catholic school, and my cerebral knowledge of the Christian faith expanded to ancient Catholic prayers and church history. I entered college as an apologist, taking a world religions class in hopes of sharpening my abilities to defend the faith, and perhaps even converting other students or the professor.

In the evenings, I could often be found in a coffee shop a couple miles from the college, smoking cigars and talking theology with the guy who wrote for The Pitch Weekly.

My career in ministry started when I was only 17 when I volunteered in our church’s junior high youth group. From that point, I always found myself in leadership, whether in high school or college ministry. I never intended to lead, but I was gifted at the dance, so it was natural for people to assume I was also grounded.

My brief trysts with the party scene were in part a ploy to improve my standing in Christian ranks. My pastor in high school built a national ministry around his story of being a former drug addict. It seemed the most effective evangelists had these stories. So partly out of rebellion and partly out of my obligatory duty to earn a testimony, I drank or smoked weed at parties.

But I was no good at it. So back I would go to church after only a few days of backsliding. Nevertheless, the partying days, however short, made for a good “testimony” when it came time to share mine.

Christianity turned into a series of steps and turns, a dance I could spin in my sleep. When speaking to non-believers, one always tries to move them closer to the faith. When speaking to believers, I knew the industry terms to cleverly weave into the conversation, words like “blessing” or “The Lord”, to show the others I was on the inside.

It wasn’t about God. It was about culture. Being accepted. Convincing everyone I was a Good Christian.

And it turned out, I was a pro.

In college, I was a peer mentor and worship leader, which led me into full-time ministry for a one-year internship after graduation. I concluded the year determined to be an evangelist in my workplace as a social worker, and I returned to my college town to help establish a church plant. After that, I planned to leave the US for missions in India.

I read all the books Christians read by all the notable authors: Oswald Chambers, Brennan Manning, and Beth Moore, John Ortberg, Dallas Willard, and Anne Lamott, John Piper, Donald Miller, and Henri Nouwen. I even read of the desert mothers and fathers and considered the convent life, as a back-up plan if my hopes to be a wife weren’t part of God’s plan.

I led worship, Bible studies and prayer meetings. I attended Christian conferences. I prayed wild prayers of abandonment. I journaled and took silence retreats.

I even married a pastor. Or a man who became a pastor.

We opened our home and eventually every spare room in our house was ministry.

And yet, all this time, my soul grew farther and farther from God.

I thought I was fine. I thought I could get along on what I knew. But all the prayers and songs, all the conferences and Bible studies, they never prepared me for this summer. The days in which I felt I lost my mind.

I’d been such a good Christian, dipping, turning and spinning at all the right moments. Knowing the right things to say, aiming always to convince others of my deep and abiding faith.

But after my first son was born, I began to neglect my soul. Like a pot on slow boil, at first I thought I could coast. The heat, my life, was manageable without time with God. Without reassurance to my soul of his love. I knew how to talk and act. I knew the dance. And wasn’t the act the most important part? 

It worked just fine until this August, just four months ago, when terrorists beheaded the journalist, James Foley. That was the beginning of the panic.

I read the news because, I told myself, I needed to be prepared. I needed to know how to pray. But the newspapers became my dealer, selling me the fear drug, and they made an addict of me. Within weeks, I overdosed.

Strung out on fear, my gut was in knots seemingly all day every day. Attempts to wrestle my soul from grip of fear were brief and futile. I prayed and spoke Bible verses at the fear. But it won. Easily.

When the Ebola outbreak began to spread its ravaging claws into the US and Europe, it was too much. It was a pressure my decaying and skeletal soul could not bear.

I think it was a Tuesday when I walked into my son’s room to tuck him into bed, just like I always did. But all I could think was, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this” as hopelessness and doom clutched me tight, constricting my breath, my life.

That was the first of October.

That’s when I stopped writing. I gave up dreaming. I gave up hoping. Everything I’ve written about here, dreaming and hoping and waiting with purpose, it all turned to liquid. Vapor.

It was all pointless.

Each day, I tried to cook dinner for my children and counsel my clients, all while ravaged by horrors in my mind’s eye.

I never questioned the fear. It was too real. As far as I was concerned, the pictures in my mind were not up for debate. They were future history.

I knew I couldn’t tell anyone because they would not understand. Or worse, they would catch what I felt: paralyzing, crippling fear.

I grew angry with God for stealing my future from me, from my children. I thought to myself, “We have no dreams now. There is nothing to live for. There is no point.”

I cried and prayed deep into the night, often waking in the middle of sleep to pray through the terror and fear. I knew I needed to surrender it all, even if the worst of my imagination were true.

Eventually it occurred to me that fear was a sin, and even if I was going to die a horrible death and lose my family and everything I’d known, I was not to live in fear of it. It seemed impossible, but slowly, God’s hand reached into my deep pit and built a staircase of truth for me to walk up.

In my work in mental health, I’d served plenty of clients with debilitating mental illness. Anxiety and depression that nearly, or sometimes, killed them. But it had never been me. Not me, insulated from the pain of the world with my white, middle class, Christian upbringing. Nice people like me never lost their minds.

But I felt like I’d nearly lost mine. I never had to spend time at a psychiatric unit, but I was barely afloat in those weeks and months. Going to work and getting my children ready for bed each day was all I could do while fighting off the fear of our inevitable doom.

I’d watched people lose it before, but they were usually reacting some great crisis in their lives, the death of a child or the loss of a marriage. But none of those things happened to me. I didn’t lose my job. Our church grew. Our children were, for the most part, healthy. Our marriage was happy. Our lives were in tact.

Throughout my journey into and out of severe anxiety and panic, the circumstances of my life never changed. Because the circumstances were not the problem. The state of my soul was the problem.

I realized the real estate of our souls is the single, greatest battlefield. Heaven is not fighting for minds and bodies. It is fighting for souls.

Every day, Satan is staking a claim to my soul every chance he gets. I am guaranteed to be his victim if I do not curate the media, the thoughts, the relationships that feed my soul. If I do not protect and nurture it.

Satan does not have to attack your finances, your marriage, your children or career. He does not have to move the circumstances in your life one iota if he can plant panic and fear, accusation of God and others in your heart. And the way he succeeds at this is by our pandemic neglect of our souls.

We are so unaware of this eternal part of ourselves. We feed our bodies, often not well, but we know we should treat them with care. We read books and even Scripture, and in this, we build up our minds.

But in vacations and pedicures and Netflix binges, we’ve replaced soul care with self-care. And none of these can heal the soul. We leave the salon or the couch feeling as dry and resentful as we did when we walked in because we are not going deep enough.

In John Ortberg’s book, Soul Keeping, he tells us “The soul is made for God”. The soul is nourished by, restored by, designed for God. Sure, our souls are made for human relationships and service, to leave the world better than we found it. But these things cannot save our souls. They cannot nurture our souls or bring them back to life when they are dying. Only God, his presence, his word, his affection can do that.

I still don’t understand the soul completely, but I’ve learned a lot about what our souls truly are from these past few months. And yet, I often return to the most basic questions, like, “So what is the soul again?” because it’s just not something we talk about.

I urge you to read Soul Keeping, to search the Psalms for the word ‘soul’ and see how David interacted with his, and ultimately, to nurture your soul with God himself. Jesus told us we gain everything in the world, yes, even all the knowledge of Bible verses and ministry successes and the trappings of Good Christiandom. But we can still lose our souls.

Don’t lose your soul. Your body and your mind will be gone one day, but don’t neglect the only part of you that’s eternal: your soul.

 {My world has been turned upside down. I know more than ever that I am small and fragile, a truth I reluctantly avoided most of my life. I don’t know what my writings will involve now, but I hope they are fresh and honest in ways I’ve not been able to muster so far. I still believe in you, and in helping you find the best ways to live. Join me on this journey by subscribing, and as always, I will send you my two eBooks on hope and calling free. Thank you.}

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Why I’ve Been Gone: All The Sunday Mornings Never Prepared Me For This

  1. Not a subscriber, but saw this on Facebook. I appreciate your honesty very much. I truly wish more Christians would open up about this kind of thing. We find it so easy to tell others when we have physical ailments and need prayer, but when our minds ail, we keep it to ourselves. I feel more Christians would open up if we could accept that the mind is as much a part of the body as the rest of it is. Sometimes it doesn’t work right, just as sometimes the lungs get sick or the pancreas doesn’t process insulin right, etc. This is why I’m a little concerned with your post. You say you’ve worked with people with depression and anxiety. I assume you wouldn’t tell them that their anxiety is “sin”, and yet you identify your own anxiety as sin. This is the very reason why so many Christians won’t let anyone know how they feel inside, thinking they’ll be accused of sinning or not having enough faith to deal with it. Please reconsider how you present this topic in the future.

    Like

    1. Erin, that’s a very good point that the way we talk about anxiety causes people to be quiet about it. I think anxiety is partly a biological function and I experienced that aspect of it, but it actually helped me to understand anxiety as a sin because it meant it was not part of God’s design. Sin isn’t scary, although the result of it is, and God isn’t scared of it. He just offers us a better way, a life of peace and joy. And I wasn’t living in his design for me, which is really what sin is, missing the mark, living out of the design. So when I made this realization, it helped me to think about what God’s design really was and to move toward that instead of accepting anxiety as just an ailment I would have to live with. Does that make sense? I do not want people to feel judged, of course, and that’s why I came out with this and told my story. I had no energy to write about it while I was in the middle of the panic so I didn’t write earlier. I will think about how to talk about it in the future, and I appreciate you reading and offering this perspective.

      Like

  2. I have been reading your posts for about six months now and in some way they always seem to touch me and get my day off to a good start. But this one was written just for me, or could be by me. I am 49 years old and have been a Christian for 21 years. I have never dealt with anxiety or depression, but like you, in the last couple of months I have had feelings of panic and hopelessness that I can only chalk up to a crisis in faith – but I have not stopped believing. You wrote to me this morning, Sara, and I want you to know that it hit me where I needed to be hit. Keep on keepin’ on!

    Like

    1. Robert, thank you so much for the encouragement! I really appreciate it. I am glad to know I am not alone in my struggle of hopelessness. I felt it was a spiritual thing that impacted many people but the deeper I got into it, the more alone I felt. So I hoped by sharing this, others might recognize a bit of their story and see the staircase out. Thank you for reading and encouraging me today.

      Like

Comments are closed.