In several blog posts, I have talked about how my church encourages members to pick from a list of Bible verses and write devotionals during the season of Advent. I discussed two devotionals I wrote this year – using verses picked at random and just writing the text and not editing it a gazillion times. It was a very spontaneous and fruitful process.
Did I learn anything in this process? The answer is yes, but the learning did not just come from crafting the devotional. I had an epiphany after I submitted the devotionals to my minister. It continues to inform my life as I move forward with heart failure.
One of my devotionals was based on the following verses found in Philippians Chapter 4, verses 4 – 7:
The format I followed to prepare the devotional was to focus on one specific verse and write about what it meant to me. I picked the last of the four verses, as I have recently begun to realize the impact God has in my life to help me fight my ever present anxiety.
I discussed how I sometimes find myself in a prison of my own making. I related the challenge of having a chronic illness, and how the stress of not knowing what will surface each day envelops your heart with fear and causes anxiety to swarm in your mind. We go to the doctor for physical treatment. But we forget that God treats fears, releasing us from our anxieties so we can live a productive life.
Paul wrote the verse I focused on from a manmade prison, a verse that can help release me from my own prison of emotional distress constructed by my own apprehension. As you can see from reading the other three verses, Paul encourages Christ’s followers to rejoice in God, to set aside their anxieties and to take everything to God in prayer. The result will be a peace and comfort that will protect your heart and mind. As I read the verses, I realized it is hard for me to discern the purpose that God put me on this earth to fulfill when anxious voices swirl in my head. I realized I must keep this verse handy, so when the devil of worry appears, I know God is guarding my heart, mind and my soul.
After I wrote this devotional, I began to sense that light is appearing in my life, a light that is helping me deal with the anxiety effectively by placing my trust in God and asking his help in discerning what my purpose is at this point in my life. I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Then came the Sunday when the minister’s sermon was based on the exact same verses. A day or two later, he told me he had read my devotional and was curious what it was like to hear his sermon – what perspective did I get from what he talked about.
All the sudden I panicked and my mind went blank. Sermon – what sermon!??!?!?! It was two days later and my memory was already foggy. In my ministerial induced stupor, I was lucky to remember sitting in church. It felt similar to being in a meeting at work when something said caused my mind to go off on a little tangent. Just as I returned to the main conversation, someone was saying “what do you think, Ms. Stinnett”. I thought – Yikes, I was daydreaming. What were they talking about? I came up with some stock noncommital, helpful phrases to use until I could regain my composure.
But then I relaxed and realized I didn’t need these stock phrases in this situation. The minister was asking me to just give thoughts about a really recent sermon I had enjoyed. It wasn’t like I was sitting for the bar exam and having to remember everything I ever learned about the law. It was then that I remembered he talked about his time serving at a church in Argentina.
He came to the church one Sunday a few hours before the worship service, and he found a woman with a cane standing outside the church. He had never seen before and he helped her up the three steps into the church. He found that she had walked five blocks from the retirement home she lived using her cane. It must have taken her close to an hour as each step was painfully slow. He explained that worship would not be for another few hours. She asked if she could come in and pray.
Closer to the time of the service, as the church community began to filter into the sanctuary, she would greet each member and by the end of the service she knew all who were there. She was soon one of the most beloved members of the church, becoming like a grandma to many. What was amazing was how joyful this woman was, given her life circumstances, 60 years of bad health, the fact that all her family was gone, the fact that she was never treated well when she worked, and her life in a drab retirement home. The minister once asked her: How can you have so much joy in the midst of struggles. She said: Don’t you know? It is because God is with me.
Okay, now you are probably amazed how someone who panicked so much at the minister’s initial question about what you got from his sermon remembers this much detail. Well, I remembered the story, but I will have to admit that videos of the sermon are on Facebook. So to get the full set of facts for this blog post, I did go back and listen to the sermon.
But when I responded to the minister – before listening again to the sermon, the thing that struck me was this. The woman clearly had some longstanding physical difficulties and other challenges. But she did not let this get in the way of doing God’s work. Later on, even though she was a newcomer to the church she greeted people and chatted happily confident as though she was one of God’s dearest, most learned ambassadors. This seemed to be her approach to life. Despite her challenges in life, she found much to celebrate and she wanted to rejoice and share her joy with others. She was definitely living the rejoice part of the verses from Philipians.
I told the minister that it struck me that as we often say, getting through life is a journey. The verses are helping me to have a better road map, with the first part of the road getting me a detour around the anxiety part. But I know that I am confidently moving on to the part where I can rejoice and see the beauty in so many areas of life – even in my chronic illness and what it still allows me to do. I am inspired by the woman in Argentina because she has given me hope that the journey is not only worthwhile – it’s awesome!
So what is it that helped this woman convert a very long and tedious and often disappointing journey into the coveted trip of a lifetime? It is found both in the minister’s sermon, and in the answer to the question that this woman gave him that day a number of years ago. She, and we all, can find joy in the midst of struggle, and can find reason to rejoice despite challenges, when we come to the realization that God is always near.
I took this advice to heart (pun intended) much during the month of December. For as much as I would like to think I have the anxiety piece conquered, well that little worry monster still has a tendency to appear at the most inopportune of times. I mean, as much as the Advent season is about the gift of the baby Jesus, well a lot of angst can fester during the rush and sometimes overlooked priorities of the holiday.
So I have been taking extra care to pray to God, and to just stop and listen for what he is telling me to do. I can feel him with me at those times, and it helps to still the raging waters of my anxiety. More important, the prayer times spills over to other crucial moments in the day where I might make a bad, rash or not wise decision if I were to let the noise mask God’s purpose. But my close prayer time with him rises up before me and I realize that there is nothing worth getting so bent out of shape over.
When can the rejoicing begin? Well it already has with the realization that I can do anything that God and I put my mind to because he is always there as my co-pilot. The rejoicing has already begun because I know that I need to share my faith with others.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.