A Painfully Candid Lenten Reflection

CN – anxiety, depression

Christians around the world began their observation of Lent yesterday on Ash Wednesday.  Lent is a season of repentance and return to God. It’s a season in which we confess that we have not lived up to being the people God created, redeemed, and called us to be.  We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.  We have been neglectful in our care of creation.  We have been selfish and have hardened our hearts to the suffering of the vulnerable around the world.

We read the words of the prophet Joel, who implored his people, “Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” We are called to turn back to God with our whole heart, to experience God’s grace and love anew – not unlike the prodigal son returning home to his father’s joyous welcome.

During Lent, Christians are encouraged to engage in the three great practices of Lent: fasting, prayer, and alms-giving.  I have chosen to focus on prayer during Lent this year.  Despite being a pastor, I must confess that my prayer life is nowhere near as robust as it could (or should) be.  I am all too often guilty of saying to someone that I will pray for them – and then praying in that moment, so it won’t be a lie! – but then allowing my promised prayers to get crowded off of my to-do list by the thousand other things that are constantly clamoring for attention.  I want to be better about accompanying others through prayer, to be consistently mindful of more than just my own concerns and struggles. (This app has really helped!)

That being said, I must also confess that I find myself struggling right now, and have been overwhelmed by the weight of my own concerns.  I have dealt with depression on and off throughout my life, but in the past couple of months, I have suddenly been dealing with intense generalized anxiety for the first time.  I’ve found myself experiencing feelings of worthlessness, panic, and fear and a sense of dread and impending doom about everything and nothing.  My muscles clench and my mind races and I struggle to breathe. Even in moments when the anxiety subsides, I feel exhausted; and time seems to pass so slowly that I worry I will never feel like myself again, never be happy again.  And I feel intensely guilty for struggling so much when others seem to be dealing with so much more than I am.

I am getting help; I’m working through some trauma stuff in therapy and plan to talk with my therapist about whether medication might be something I should consider.  And I am so, so deeply grateful for the friends, family, and colleagues who have been walking with me through this tough time. You are all such a gift.  And I welcome any and all prayers to help me through this.

Even though it’s hard for me to really believe right now – with the anxiety overloading my system – I know that I won’t feel this way forever.  There have even been many good moments – and even good days – since this first started in mid-January.  And I know that lots of other people deal with anxiety and that they manage to get through it and live full and happy lives.

I just have to learn to be patient with it – which actually brings me back to the theme of Lent.  I began 2019 by choosing a pair of focus words for the year: gratitude and patience.  Several of my clergy colleagues have since pointed out that prayers for patience are almost always immediately regretted – because God doesn’t so much give you patience as God gives you the opportunity to be patient.  (I’ll admit I’m kind of regretting it a little bit now, heh.)  I wanted to focus on patience in my interactions with other people: I have strong opinions about many things (especially in the areas of politics and religion), and all too often find myself more inclined to speak than to listen.  Especially given the diverse range of viewpoints among my parishioners, I wanted to work on being someone who – in the words attributed to St. Francis – seeks not so much to be understood as to understand.  However, God seems to be calling me instead to practice being patient with the person with whom I have the absolute least patience: myself.

This has required me to have a lot more trust in God, to truly turn back to God with all my fearful, panicked heart.  The experience of anxiety underscores my own human limitation and vulnerability, my need for control.  In the fear and uncertainty that this anxiety has created, I’m having to learn anew to trust in God, to have faith that God is walking with me and that God will bring me through to the other side of this, even when I cannot seem to feel hopeful or joyful about the way ahead.  I fervently pray with David the words of Psalm 51:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

And above all, I cling for dear life to the promise of Lent: that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  May God be with all who are struggling with anxiety or depression, and with all who undertake the discipline of Lent.

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