What Everybody Ought to Know About Stress

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Traditionally I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the signals my body sends me. That’s beginning to change.

Last spring right before a big speaking event, my jaw started to hurt, causing headaches and weird popping sounds when I chewed or opened too wide.

At the beginning of this summer I had a lot of deadlines and decisions pile up into one week. I thought I was cool with it all, but as I drifted off to sleep one night, my heartbeat woke me up because it was beating so hard I thought surely John could hear it too.

Then last week, while the kids were at Grandy Camp with my parents, I hurt my back by doing a super risky move – getting up from my sofa. One minute it was fine, but as soon as I moved to stand up, I felt a weird pain in my left side lower back.

I’ve already bored myself telling you the details.

(The other day after explaining my injury to John for the tenth time and having him not once roll his eyes or try to slip out of the room in disguise, I realized that the proof of true love is if someone will 1. Listen as you describe that dream you had last night and 2. Allow you to explain your minor injuries to them again.)

(Seriously though, when someone begins a sentence with “I have to tell you about this dream I had last night!” my eyes roll into the back of my head and my whole body goes limp with boredom and apathy. I digress.)

I consider myself to be fairly limber and medium-ly active. I go to a yoga class several times a week, walk/jog in the neighborhood when it’s not too hot and you know, go up and down our stairs tens of times during the day. I even went to my first kickboxing class a couple of weeks ago.

Still, the sofa betrayed me and caused several days of discomfort. It was’t debilitating, just annoying. So at my next yoga class I pay extra attention to that spot on my back, careful not to make it worse.

Radiance Yoga

As we begin to stretch at the beginning, our instructor tells us to pay attention to how the rest of our body reacts as we hold a pose, especially if it is a challenging one.

Her words make instant sense to me. We tend to compensate when under pressure, the body responding in fear because it thinks it’s in danger. We hold a low lunge and I know I’m going to die because that’s what happens when you hold a low lunge. As she reminds us again to notice how the rest of our bodies react, I realize I’m clenching my jaw and feel my shoulders creeping up to my ears.

She invites us to offer breath to those tense places and I instantly sense the smallest shift in the pose – a lifting of expectation and simultaneously, a feeling of ease. She explains how deep breathing relaxes the central nervous system and sends the body a message, You’re going to be okay.

Sunflower

I don’t always remember to connect my life circumstance with my bodily reactions. But the Lord created us as one complete person, not fragmented out. There is no impenetrable wall between our body, soul, and spirit. All of these different, sacred parts of us form the whole – In him all things hold together.

The strange thing is that I actually feel fairly relaxed these days. On the outside, I’m not freaking out or overly concerned with outcomes. But my body is telling me that anxiety is flowing just below the surface, like fast-moving water beneath a smooth sheet of ice.

As someone who tends to think and overthink and just when I’m finished thinking I think some more, I’m learning to pay attention to my body and, surprsingly even those ridiculous dreams.

My mind is important, but it isn’t always the most trustworthy narrator of the truth.

Sometimes the feeling I get in my dreams is more accurate than the story I’m trying to convince myself is true while I’m awake. And before I dismiss it as ridiculous, perhaps I could take a little time to listen.

Are you dreaming of your teeth falling out, forgetting math homework, needing to be somewhere but you can’t find directions? Have you missed the bus in your dreams, forgotten to put on pants, or can’t remember your locker combination?

Maybe now is a good time to consider what your body has to teach you and listen for the voice of God beneath the surface of those crazy dreams.

Maybe you are feeling the stretch of a difficult circumstance and your instinct is to tighten up, manage outcomes, and try to maintain control.

Maybe you’re mind is telling you everything is fine, fine, fine, but your body and your dreams are weaving a different tale.

Is your body trying to tell you something? Are your dreams whispering small truths about the state of your soul?

I hear the invitation to send deep breath to those tight, fearful places, both the ones in my body and the ones in my soul.

It’s possible to feel the tension without compromising my intention – love, trust, and gratitude. But it requires acknowledging the pain, becoming aware of God’s presence with me and within me, and releasing outcomes into his capable hands.

If you are holding tension in your body and soul these days, I can relate. I’ve prepared a free four-day video series just for you, practical steps to help create a little space for your soul to breathe based on my new book, Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. Watch the first video right here and sign up to receive the rest in your inbox.

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When Your Soul Feels Held Hostage by Hustle

Simply Tuesday

If it ever feels like the fast-moving world is not only rushing around you but also within you, I have something I hope might help. For the last few months we’ve been working hard behind the scenes to make a short video series to help you create space for your soul to breathe.

Today it’s live and ready for you at SimplyTuesday.com. See you there!

So You Want to Be a Better Listener

I cried through communion yesterday and I still don’t know why. Instead of falling into the  pattern of feeling either apologetic about my tears or grasping for a way to explain them to myself, I’m learning to embrace this sometimes oddly timed emotion and allow it to simply be. Everything doesn’t need an explanation.

emily p freeman

While I think it’s important to listen to our tears, that doesn’t always mean we’ll get a diagnosis. I chose instead to let them fall, took the bread and the cup and thought about the kingdom of heaven.

“Jesus promises us the kingdom of heaven: more compassion, more, love, more spirit, more mercy, more justice, more courage, more surprise. Everything but more money. The regular practice of Communion is meant to help move us from being the citizens of an empire to the citizens of heaven.”

Nora Gallagher, The Sacred Meal: The Ancient Practices Series

Being a citizen of heaven means living upside down. We already know the first are last, the last are first. The rich are poor, the poor are rich. The strong are weak, the weak are strong.

Maybe being a citizen of heaven also sometimes means the talkers will learn to listen. Maybe I’m making that up.

I wrote about listening at (in)courage this weekend because I believe good listeners can change the world. I know this because they’ve changed mine.

Communion is a kind of listening. We may come to the table distracted and bustling on the inside, but the elements remind us of a different way to live, offering a different kind of food that comes from another land, the original comfort food.

We eat and drink and remember Christ, not just who he was on earth but who he is within us today – stumbling through Monday, jotting down the grocery list, planning out the week. More importantly, Monday brings the opportunity again to see people and to listen to them. Do we really know how to do that?

Communion is a reminder that God hears us and came down to be with us. The company of Jesus is stunning, really. How can we offer his company to others? The simplest (and also the the hardest) way I can think of is to learn to listen without an agenda.

Want some good books on listening? I have a library of them. Here are three I highly recommend, using affiliate links because that’s just good business:

Listen In: Building Faith and Friendship Through Conversations That Matter // My friend Rachael Crabb and her two friends Sonya Reeder and Diana Calvin wrote this one together. As a woman who is emotionally allergic to small talk, I deeply appreciate this book. It’s a real-life example of what can happen when friends ask curious questions and cast a hopeful vision. I want to be the kind of friend that Rachael, Sonya and Diana are to one another and I’m thankful that they have generously let us listen in.

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker J. Palmer // I mean you’ve already read this one, right? Surely you have. It’s short and small and easy to tuck in your bag on your way to anywhere. I come back to this one again and again when I need a reminder to pay attention to the shape of my own soul and let Christ live through me whatever way he wants to.

The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. McHugh // This one hasn’t yet released so it feels a tiny bit cruel to tell you about it. I offered endorsement for this gem and if you pre-order it now you’ll get it in time for Christmas.

Basically if it were possible to combine the voices of Dallas Willard, N. D. Wilson and Jim Gaffigan, then what you would get is Adam S. McHugh. His writing is profound, lyrical and self-deprecating in all the right ways. There are few books I want to start again once I’ve finished. The Listening Life is now one of them. I adore this stunning, important book and want to give it to everyone I know.

May we learn to build in pauses before we speak and sometimes decide not to say all those words at all. Happy listening!

How Being Specific is Changing the World

We count the growth rings in a tree stump to see how old it is, skipping over the blanks between. We’re looking only for the darkest circles, pointing to them as proof of growth. But the dark circles only show one piece of the story, leave marks of the slowest summer growth.

How Begin Specific is Changing the World

Count them and  you learn something for sure. But pay attention to the trunk as a whole and you get a better picture of the life of the tree.

Sometimes writing feels like the darkest rings of a tree. It’s like laying down evidence so I can look back and point to something tangible, something I can count. Writing leaves behind proof of the wrestling, the longing, the learning, and the hope.

But the time between the writing tells a story too, and lately I’ve been floundering through that part of the story in my own life.

Even when I’m not writing here in this space, I’m paying attention, watching for themes. Over the past several weeks, one theme has woven itself through my reading, conversations, and thought-life so strongly that if I don’t write it down, I fear I’ll begin to forget the impact it’s having.

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It started when John found a pearl in his Oysters Rockefeller, bit down right on it and pulled it out of his mouth. We though he was joking at first as it just looked like a small, over-sized pebble.

But he asked our waitress to confirm it and after close inspection she announced it was. She’s worked at the crab shack for many years and knows what to look for. After trying in vain to use it as payment for our meal (dad jokes abound), John put his found treasure in a to-go ramekin and we all gathered around to get a good look.

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It wasn’t necessarily impressive and, if it wasn’t found inside an oyster, we would have ignored it. It could maybe even fool the tooth fairy in dim lighting and pass for a child’s baby tooth.

the pearl

Around the time we were inspecting this newfound treasure outside the restaurant on Hilton Head Island, a man walked into a church a hundred miles north and sat down with a group of believers. He was welcomed into their midst and an hour after that, he killed them because they were black.

But I didn’t know this at the time. Before I went to bed that night, I saw a passing headline of a shooting in Charleston, but I didn’t pay close attention and simply pictured a mad gunman in the street, shooting into the air. I don’t know why I didn’t imagine victims or motive. I just heard “shooting” and thought “gun pointed into the sky.”

The next morning I woke up early and walked out to the coast, continued reading where I had left off the day before in A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle:

“I find that I always listen carefully to the weather: this affects me. If there is some kind of strike going on in New York — there usually is — which will inconvenience me, I get highly indignant. I am apt to pay less attention when the daily figures for deaths on battlefields are given; it is too far away; I cannot cope emotionally . . . It has to happen close at home before I can truly feel compassion.”

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Later that morning, I saw along with the watching world the details of the shooting from the night before, that the gun was not shot into the air but into the bodies of nine believers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

I’m not sure anyone really knows how to process this kind of evil. What compartment do you place it in? Who can hold the weight of this sadness?

The whole thing was heartbreaking and that sounds dumb to even say because of course it was more than that, is more than that.

I carried a vague sense of sadness with me for the rest of the week – for the families of those who were killed, for the people living in Charleston, for our broken country. I was sad and sorry for the ways I’ve contributed to racism in our country and my own community, ways I’m not even sure I fully see or understand, and other ways that are embarrassingly clear to me.

I saw the names and faces of the victims on the news. But it wasn’t until we arrived home and I sat in my usual seat at our home church on Sunday when I heard their names read from the pulpit by my friend Wendy – in her voice and with her accent – that I started to cry.

“We are lost unless we can recover compassion, without which we will never understand charity. We must find, once more, community, a sense of family, of belonging to each other.”

- Madeleine L’Engle

The gunman was specific.

The only antidote to a specific evil is a specific Hope.

Jesus came to a particular girl at a particular time in history. He was not frantic about it, he wasn’t late or early or in a hurry. Jesus grew inside his mother just as every baby has and will grow inside their mothers – at a particular place in a particular time.

God wrote all the details of humanity into the body of Christ, His words becoming literal flesh in the secret, hidden place inside Mary, tucked beneath her heart.

I have realized this week, even in the last 24 hours:  I am afraid to be specific. 

emily p freeman

Specificity feels vulnerable and intimate. Asking for something particular is more risky than asking for something in general. Longing and desire are lovely when spoken of in an over-all, wide-ranging way. But start to name those longings one by one and things get terrifying quickly.

What if I don’t get a pearl in my oyster?

It’s too much to ask for, too detailed to hope for, too much to lose.

So prayers sound more like please God bless rather than please God, THIS.

I didn’t realize how my unwillingness to be specific keeps people at arms length, keeps me from having to be involved in complicated issues, and keeps my head a clean distance from my heart.

“Compassion is nothing one feels with the intellect alone. Compassion is particular; it is never general.” – Madeleine L’Engle

Now that I’ve called it out, I’m seeing it everywhere.

Sandra Peoples wrote a post about being helpful and community, saying “the more specific you are, the more helpful you are.”

Shannan Martin said this on Saturday, that “We cannot love what we do not know. And we cannot hate what we refuse to acknowledge.”

Yesterday standing at my front door, my friend and assistant Traci tells me she is praying through some things, but she always prays specifically “because how can I pray for people if I don’t know what their needs are?”

At church on Sunday, a few in the prayer ministry – Kevin and Erin – talked about cultivating an “imaginative hope” for the needs we see around us, that prayer is simply taking up the burdens you see and then re-releasing them into God’s hands. But to take them up, we have to know what they are.

We pray because we have hope for change, so faith means imagining what that change might be.

Imagination requires specificity.

Evil is specific. Our hope must be specific, too. Specificity is changing the world in both good and bad ways. I want to be part of the good. I want a front row seat to the miracles.

I’m not sure what all this means yet. This space here is where I begin to work things out and it helps to do it with other people which is why I didn’t just write this in a journal. I don’t have clean answers or even something specific to share with you in closing, but I do have a deep conviction that it’s time for me to clear the decks of my soul and make a little room to listen to the details.

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