life:filtered

…learning to live a life filtered by the truth of the gospel.

this beautiful thing August 2, 2016

Filed under: seriousness — Stephanie @ 5:00 am
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This beautiful thing happened last week. Beautiful as a sunrise, bursting with color and lighting up the sky. But just as a sunrise only happens after the dark of night, so too with this beautiful thing. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let me go back.

At the beginning of our story, I am a ship without an anchor, drifting alone at sea. And then a storm arose and hell cut loose. It’s hard to tell this story because I won’t go into a lot of details about the storm. But suffice it to say that this storm raged violently. And I raged with it.

It started with a Monday morning therapy session two weeks ago, processing some junk and dragging it out kicking and screaming. Junk that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. And my broken self would have been glad to leave that junk in the dark, buried beneath the surface of my consciousness. But out it came. Therapy is good for that. I had opened Pandora’s box and nothing was going back in. What came out of that box was ugly. And I got ugly with it. It triggered me and whether it triggered a mixed episode, a full on hypomanic episode or an ugly reaction to the ugliness, it was ugly. Get it? I was a mess of anger and rage. I hurt people that I love. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t see past the red hot anger. I spiraled out of control and finally crashed to the bottom of the pit. This wasn’t like the pit of depression with its suffocating ocean of thick darkness. This burned. Like raging hot coals heaped on my head until I thought they would burn right through me. And who can walk on burning coals?

But here’s where it gets good. I have these friends and what they do is point me to the truth. From the one who understands exactly where I’m coming from to the one who tells it like it is and the ones who turn my eyes straight to Jesus, these friends surrounded me. They bore my burdens, carrying them as if they were their own. And I began to see the Lord’s hand moving. Slowly, surely moving. Randy said, you’ve done this before and the Lord brought you through it. He’ll do it again. And Renee, God chose you, he loves you. Find all the times the Lord says he is your shield and protector.

I desperately wanted these things to be true.

And so I started to believe them. I found verses like Psalm 3:3—“But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head.” And Psalm 28:7—“The Lord is my strength and my shield…” But it was Psalm 18 that stood out. “I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” (Psalm 18:1-3) I held these verses close to my chest as I fell asleep last Sunday night.

I woke the next morning to a text from Julie. The first three verses of Psalm 18. Awe. It seems like a small thing, inconsequential and maybe even coincidental. But I know it’s not. God did that just for me. He has nothing to prove, yet he chose to prove himself anyway. So that I would know how much he loves me. So that I would know he is with me. And so I fell back into him, trusting that he would catch me. “Come to me” and “rest” (Matthew 11:28-30). I started to think of it as a retreat; a falling back into him and allowing him to advance and defeat this for me. I fell straight into his secure grip, into his safe arms. I had doubted that he would catch me. Why am I so slow to remember who he is? Slow to trust who he is?

Nothing has changed yet everything has changed. Pandora’s box is still wide open. Those things that triggered me are still there. I am still fragile. Still reeling from the work I’ve done and the work I’ll continue to do in therapy. But, I don’t have to do it alone. He is here, with these people he has given me walking along side me as well. And he has given me peace and calm as only a gentle, kind Father could. 

And so I write all of this because I want to show off my God. I want you to see him for who he is, in all his glory. In all his goodness and mercy. I want you to stand in awe as I have. To know that he is alive and well.

This beautiful thing.


©stephanie g. pepper


 

Who am I? Who I am. April 19, 2016

Filed under: seriousness,Uncategorized — Stephanie @ 4:00 am
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Who am I? Whenever think about that question, I usually respond in bullet points. I am a wife, a mother, a writer, a reader, a Christ follower…and the list goes on. But who am I? Where is my identity? I know what the answer is, but it is so hard to believe. I am a child of God. A redeemed daughter of the Father, saved by grace alone and called good. Why is that so hard to believe? Because I don’t think I’m worthy to be called these things. In my eyes, I am a miserable wretch, undeserving of grace, of anything good. But that isn’t true. My true identity no more rests in those lies than it does in the fact that I have brown hair or am 5’4” tall.

On a women’s retreat recently, I was consumed by anxiety and wrought with fear. Fear of being inadequate. Anxious about the social aspect of the weekend—making friends, finding a place to sit for meals. I realized that for all my bravado, for all the times I proudly said “I have bipolar” instead of “I am bipolar,” for all the times I put on the persona of a confident woman, I was still allowing my illnesses and weaknesses to define me. I was identifying as being bipolar, being anxious and being inadequate. They were my identity. Even realizing this during a conversation did not allay my fears or calm my anxious heart. I continued to categorize myself in terms of my faults, my weaknesses, my illness, not allowing God to have the final say in who I was. And they consumed my heart as I allowed these thoughts to reign.

So what is identity? The dictionary defines identity as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” And being is defined as “the most important or basic part of a person’s mind or self.” At its core, identity is how we are defined. It is fact. And while there are many facts about me, it is in the facts that are me that my identity is found. It is in these facts of being that we find our true self.

What’s the difference in facts about me verses facts that are me? A fact about me is that I have brown eyes. I am not brown eyes though. I could have colored contact lenses and a casual observer might think that I have blue or green eyes. I have brown hair but someday it will turn gray. A fact that is me is that I am a child of the King. I am his beloved daughter. Those facts define me to the core of my being. They are who I am. It is the most basic part of my true self. It is who he has made me to be.

How, then, do I live out of the reality of who he says I am, who he has called me to be instead of letting “about” facts take the place of “are” facts? It’s a heart change. One wrought by years of beating down a path in your heart to make the truths personal and real. It’s allowing his words to penetrate deep down and take root in your soul until your heart finally believes the truth of who you are.

While other things may be descriptors of my person-hood, they are not definers of my soul. One word separates the two—have. I have brown eyes, I have anxiety, I have bipolar. But I am a child of God. My identity is found only in who he says I am. And he says I am loved, honored and precious.


©stephanie g. pepper

 

When a good thing is a trigger March 21, 2016

Filed under: seriousness — Stephanie @ 4:37 pm
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In the mental health community there’s a lot of talk about triggers. A trigger is anything that causes uncomfortable emotions. It can be something small like a song you hear on the radio or something big like news of a death, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it triggers you and sends you reeling into panic, anxiety, depression or mania.

Strangely, one of my biggest triggers is a place I love. My church. When I’m in a bad place, just walking into the building can trigger panic and anxiety. It started a few years ago when I went through the worst depressive episode to date. I was sitting in the third row, a silent observer. It was the first Sunday of the February, a communion Sunday. My pastor talked a lot about gospel transformation, allowing the gospel to take hold and transform. And as the music started and people filed to the kneelers for communion, I started to shake. For so long I had longed for this gospel transformation, longed to let the gospel take over me with its power. I watched in the semi-darkness as those around me experienced that transformation, the very thing I was missing. Or at least, that’s what I imagined was happening. So I pulled a scrap of paper from my Bible and scrawled these words, “I quit. I can’t keep doing this. It’s too hard. I can’t keep trying only to end up back in this place of darkness time after time. I’d rather not get my hopes up that [gospel] transformation might happen.” The room grew darker by the minute as my heart filtered out the light. I couldn’t force myself out of my chair and up to the kneelers that morning. Couldn’t feast on the bread of life or drink deeply from the cup. I was turning to stone. A stone that was being crushed under the weight of depression. And in the sacredness of that moment, I gave in to the darkness. I let it wash over me without resisting it. The weight was oppressive; suffocating. The fight had gone out of me. Darkness was my only companion.

The next few days are a blur. I went into one of the deepest depressions of my life with thoughts of death and pain clouding my heart and mind. I had been in this place before, but this time it felt scarier, more intense. While it’s true that a change in my medications was partly to blame, there was a battle being waged and my heart and mind were the battlefield.

But I didn’t quit. I continued to go to church, though for weeks after that experience, walking into the building produced an extraordinary anxiety. I took Klonopin just to make it through the service. I sat in my chair shaking, the medication barely taking the edge off the anxiety. How could something so close to my heart cause my heart cause such deep pain? Why did I continue to go? Why subject myself to the pain? Because deep down, I knew that it was my only hope. The only place speaking truth in the darkness.

Even now, communion can cause anxiety to rise up in me. I sit and watch, sometimes unable to make it to the kneelers to partake. Some Sundays, I force myself out of my chair. Others, I just can’t do it. There’s too much at stake. The days I do, I kneel, forcing my heart to calm itself, barely able to pray, barely able to take in the beauty of the table. Feeling like I am somehow less because of this feeling inside my heart. I long for an anesthetic to numb the pain of my longing. But maybe that pain is good. Maybe it is God’s way of drawing me close. If I could only let it—let Him, in. The pain could be a signpost of God’s transformative power working in me.

So I’ll continue to push through the feelings and make my way to the communion table. I’ll push through the anxiety and allow God to transform me. Let the gospel take root in me. I’ll fight the darkness with the truth of the Light. But transformation is a work in progress as God slowly walks me through this journey. And I’m further down the road than I was four years ago. Even four weeks ago. And as Paul writes, the one who calls me is faithful, and he will do it.

©stephanie g. pepper

 

Hold on to Hope December 22, 2015

Filed under: Advent — Stephanie @ 4:00 am
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Advent Day 24

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.
–Hebrews 6:19


In “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Linus says, “Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful thing like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” And that’s me; I’m Charlie Brown. I take what is beautiful and good about Christmas and turn it into worry and stress and anxiety. And like Charlie Brown, I get hopeless and depressed because, for another year, Christmas fails to live up to my expectations.

And what are my expectations? The perfect tree, homemade cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, piles of gifts under the tree. I want our family to have traditions. I want to recreate the magic I felt as a child. I want to incorporate meaningful spiritual exercises into our advent experience. And I want to feel a deep, spiritual experience of Christ and his birth. On the heels of the expectations are the demands and the “shoulds” of how to make it all happen, and they all fall squarely on my shoulders. The hunt for the perfect tree shouldn’t begin at Home Depot, it should begin at a tree farm and end with boys with a saw cutting down a tree. Homemade cinnamon rolls should begin with butter, not with a butter knife popping open a can of Pillsbury. But the problem is, I can’t make it all happen. I fail. And so our tree comes from Home Depot and our cinnamon rolls come from a can. All the failures, all the disappointments, all of it leads to hopelessness. And ultimately, after I finish the self-inflicted shame, I pin it all on God. Not only have I failed myself, but God has failed me. And I get angry at God for not fulfilling my expectations for the perfect Christmas. I let go of hope.

How do I reclaim the hope that Christmas brings? There are two kinds of hope, worldly hope and godly hope. Worldly hope is a desire for something that we want to come to fruition. This hope places its bets on things that have a concrete completion in the here and now. Things that we can point to and say, see, my hopes came to be. But worldly hope can be a disappointing hope. This disappointment is a universal human experience and there are two possible outcomes. First, we don’t get what we want and become cynical. Or second, we don’t get what we want and we let the pain and disappointment of our frustrated hopes lead us to God; we let it teach us about ourselves. This leads us to the hope we are made for. This response is the segue-way to godly hope. Godly hope is the hope behind the worldly hope. Ultimately, God is our true desire. And hope in God is a sure thing. It’s a future hope, one that will be fulfilled in the new heavens and the new earth, when Christ’s return becomes a reality. Christ in me the hope of glory.

In the end, Charlie Brown finds the meaning of Christmas. He sees it in his pathetic little tree, propped up by Linus’ blanket and decorated by the gang. And, like Charlie Brown, I find the hope in Christmas when I hear the story of a baby born in a manger. And all the expectations fade away.

©stephanie g. pepper

 

callings August 27, 2015

Filed under: musings,seriousness — Stephanie @ 1:00 am
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I’ve never truly admitted to myself that I want to be a writer. But I do. I want to be a writer. And maybe I already am. But I hesitate to apply the term to myself. I always say, “I write.” Not “I’m a writer.” Maybe because it sounds too arrogant or too grandiose or something like that. Maybe I’m not brave enough to call myself out like that. It’s a pretty loaded statement. There’s no turning back once you declare something like that. You’re either all in or not. To me, it feels like there’s no halfway to it. Oh wait, I lied. I’m not a writer after all.

The truth is though, I feel like I’m called to be a writer. I honestly believe that God has gifted and called me to write the same way he calls some to preach and others to serve. And that sounds conceited to my ears. Do I even have the courage to agree with him? Can I allow him to make that claim on my life? Where do I take this call? But God lays claim on everyone’s life…and I guess, no, I know, that this is his on mine. It has been mine since I can remember, even when being a writer was just a childhood dream. And then in high school, people started telling me I was a good writer. But I didn’t believe them, not really. I doubted myself then as I doubt myself now. I question not only my call, but my ability. No matter how many times I’m told that I’m a good writer, I still question it.

And why write? What is so important about words that God would call some to be writers? In the Bible (words), God calls Jesus the Word made flesh. God used words to make his truth known throughout the history of Israel. He inspired Moses to write down the history of creation and slavery and freedom. Without those words, we’d likely know nothing about our God and our heritage. The songs of praise and adoration from David and the other Psalmists. And look at Paul’s letters. He used words to express God’s truth to the gentiles. Words are everywhere. And I think God calls some of to write his truth still—through non-fiction and fiction, because truth is everywhere if you look for it.

So here I stand with a call, pondering my next move. If I agree with God and say I’m a writer, then I’ve got to write. And writing is hard. Sometimes words flow and sometimes it’s like dragging them out of hell. But God never said it would be easy, he just said to do it. So I am trying. Trying to write, but more than that, trying to be faithful.



©stephanie g. pepper

 

Have a little faith August 23, 2015

Filed under: seriousness — Stephanie @ 4:04 pm
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“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.” –Anne Lamott

We said the Apostle’s Creed this morning in church and it was a good thing. I have been struggling with doubt lately and the corporate confession of what we believe was good for me to hear and say. Faith is hard and admitting that mine is riddled with doubt is even harder. It’s a tough thing to admit, that I’m a doubter, but that’s what I am. But I’m in good company, it seems. Peter doubted as he walked on water. Thomas doubted as the resurrected Jesus stood before him. Elijah doubted after he called down fire from heaven. And I doubt, even though I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. Sometimes I doubt every word of the Apostle’s Creed. I doubt that God exists, I doubt that Jesus was who he says he was, and I doubt that the Bible is true. It’s an ugly thing to say about myself and I wish it weren’t true about me. I wish I could believe blindly and never once question. But that’s just not my experience.

I have to be honest. And being honest means this confession is a part of my life. The question is this, is doubt the enemy of faith? Or could it be as Paul Tillich says, that “doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it’s an element of faith?” Could doubt be a part of faith? Could they be bound together? My doubt implies that I have faith. It means that I wrestle with my beliefs. That I care enough about it to think it through, even though thinking it through means that I question the things that bring me life. I think it makes me human.

So why confess my doubt? Why open myself up to shaming and judgment? Because I care enough about my faith to struggle with it. I care enough to bring it out into the light and let God deal with it there instead of hiding it in the darkness where it festers and grows and eventually consumes me. I believe there is no condemnation for me because of my doubt. I believe God delights to meet me in my doubt. That it affords him the opportunity to show off, like he did this morning, and give me all the more reason to believe.

Doubt is faith stretching out. Growing wings and taking flight. And my faith is stronger with each season of doubt.

And so with Dostoevsky, I say, “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”

I believe; help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)

©stephanie g. pepper

 

forgetting what lies behind August 7, 2015

Filed under: seriousness — Stephanie @ 10:57 am
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But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead… (Philippians 3:13)

Regret.

I pack a lot of that around. It is a near constant companion it seems. It looms large in my mind. And while I have regrets in a lot of life’s places, it is most noticeable when it comes to my boys. I regret that I have not been the mother I always hoped I’d be. I have let time slip through my fingers and now the littlest boy starts school in a week. And my mind is full of regret for the time that I’ve let pass by. Have I cheated them out of what I owe them? What will my children remember me for? Will they remember the mother who took them to the zoo and the playground? Or will they remember the mother who couldn’t get off the couch? Will they remember the mother who pushed Matchbox cars around on the floor or the one who was too busy doing nothing? And honestly, I did do the good things once in a while. It wasn’t always a peanut butter and jelly and Caillou. Some days I did the good things. But more days, I didn’t.

And so I stand here at the end of a chapter and I am filled with regret.

I am hard on myself, I know. I beat myself silly over the time I’ve wished away. The days that seemed so long that I couldn’t wait for them to be over, to climb in bed and be done for the day. I beat myself over the head with regret, never giving myself the grace to fall down, yet falling down so often. And shame creeps in sidling up with regret to pull me down even further.

But bad days aren’t every days. There are good ones mixed in there too; those days we played Battleship or passed the football in the yard. When I used to push them on the swings and catch them at the bottom of the slide. The ones filled with laughter and smiles. Days when I loved them well. These are the days I remember and hold on to, though I wonder if they will.

To be fair, I have struggled with mental illness their whole lives. That’s a reason but not an excuse, though I have used it as an excuse. An illness that left me debilitated, not able to leave the bed. One that left me a raging machine, unable to find anything but anger in the messes and tears. I have found no grace for myself in those moments. Only shame and regret. And in that shame and regret, I lug around a lot of baggage. The “should haves,” the “oughts,” and the “might have beens.” They are like weights on my shoulders, pushing me into the ground.

What do I do with the “should haves?” Can I pay them back for all the “might have beens?” God knows I have tried. Tried with trips to McDonald’s and Krispie Kreme. Tried with ice cream cones and slushies. Tried with things, not time. And time is what they crave. What they long for. And I had it to give, still have it to give. Will I?

Regret dies slowly and shame even slower. And I want to know, is there time left to redeem my motherhood? Is there grace enough for the loss? I can never live up to the standards I place on myself. I’m not sure anyone can. There’s always some regret, some way it could have been better, even for the best of us. But we aren’t our worst days any more than we are our best days.

And there is hope born in the ashes of my failure. Which means that I don’t have to live in the regret. I can forget what lies behind. Tomorrow can be a better day. I can live richly with my children in the todays and tomorrows and redeem the time I’ve lost. That time is gone for sure, but the future still lies ahead and that is the part to strain for, to hope for. I’m more than a little sad for the loss, for the time that is gone like water down a drain. But there is hope. A hope that comes from God. It comes from him saying that I am enough even with my failures. I don’t have to live in the shame of what I haven’t done. Shame and regret are tied together like a thick cord. And how do I untie that knot? By resting in the knowledge that I am loved perfectly my Father. And he loves my boys perfectly, too. By knowing that where I have failed them, he has never and will never fail them. I don’t have to live in regret and shame because I am forgiven. Because I am loved.

So there is still hope for me. Hope for football games and soccer matches. Tee-ball games and violin recitals. For driving lessons and first dates. For regular days too; lazy days and crazy days. I can be present now and that is enough. The past is gone. The now is all I’ve got.

And what if this thing that feels like an ending to me is actually a beginning?

©stephanie g. pepper