Please welcome today’s guest writer, Laura Sheppard. Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a double major in writing and studio art. She currently lives in Grand Rapids and plans to move to Madison, Wisconsin soon to begin working as a technical writer.
I often go to church alone. But today, walking in feels more painful, more solitary as I enter the high-ceilinged sanctuary, arms crossed guardedly as I weave between chatting groups of churchgoers, few of whom know my name.
As the service begins I stand facing the worship leader, an empty chair on each side as a buffer between me and the other worshipers. The room is sticky—the air conditioner is broken—and I squeeze my cardigan into a ball in my hands.
I watch the screen and softly mumble the words to a worship song I don’t know, something about the moon and the stars, but I’m not even paying attention to what I’m saying—my mind is racing a mile a minute, just like it’s been doing for the past ten months without stopping as I worry, worry, worry.
“You are holy…” I need to get an apartment, I’m not going to get a lease in time…
“…great and mighty…” Work is stressful and I don’t think they even like me…
“I’m so unworthy…” I’ve been so rude to my housemates lately…
“But still you love me…” What if I don’t make friends at my new job?…
I haven’t heard a word of the song I’m singing. I praise Him with my lips, but my heart is far away.
A few days earlier, I sat wringing my hands in the first session of an eight-week class on meditation. My counselor had told me it was one of the best ways to help deal with anxiety, that it could complement the medicine I was taking and train my mind to be more at peace. Some countries use mindfulness meditation as the primary treatment for depression, she’d said. I think it could be a great thing for you.
I was one of the youngest in a circle of a dozen strangers, most of them parents, grandparents. Our teacher called class into session with a gentle voice, asking us to introduce ourselves and say a little about why we had come.
I didn’t want to tell these strangers about my anxiety, about what it’s like to have a constant internal monologue of self-criticism or to desperately need, sometimes, to crawl under a table and hug myself until a wave of pain passes. I stared at my feet when the teacher asked who’d like to go first.
But as the strangers began to speak about why they’d come, they opened up, sharing shy yet earnest testimonies about their struggles. They spoke about depression and parenthood, worry and exhaustion, anxiety that hung over their heads even in sleep. When it was my turn I talked fast, but they listened intently, nodding in understanding. As I finished one lady said, “Me too.”
The room felt warmer, somehow, after we had all spoken. Our teacher explained more about mindfulness, how it could help with stress and pain. She led us in a meditation as we closed our eyes, hands folded in our laps as if in prayer. Afterward we communed over shriveled dates to practice mindful eating, chewing with slow deliberation. The room was quiet, yet it crackled with the hesitant hope of a dozen people who came here for healing and for strength, to learn new tools for dealing with the brokenness in our lives.
In church my thoughts are not at rest, and all I am mindful of is my desire to escape the heat of the lonely crowd. I should pay my bills later…I should consolidate my loans…I should…I should…
The lyrics on the screen change, and I wrench myself out of my brain’s chatter in time for the opening chords to “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”—one of my favorites. I remember that our homework from meditation class was to practice being mindful during an everyday activity. Maybe I could try it with singing.
I close my eyes and try to focus only on the music on my tongue; the sound escaping from my throat, my mouth carefully forming the consonants of the hymn: the teeth-against lips of faithful, the hushing shh of shadow and compassion. My mind becomes quiet but for the words I breathe.
An ember of peace flickers in me as the chorus of believers swells, and the space between me and the people next to me shrinks. We’ve all come here with a need for God, with hope that, here, we can find a renewed strength.
“All I have needed…”
There have been so many days this past year when I’ve desperately needed peace. Jesus promised us the gift of peace, but lifelong anxiety has made it so hard for me to find.
“…Thy hand hath provided…”
Still, He has taken care of me. It’s a gift to be able to take anxiety medicine. And it’s a gift to learn how to meditate, to quiet my mind to a place where I can better hear His voice.
I know God gives healing through miracles, and sometimes we can’t even understand the peace He offers. But I think He can give healing through other things, too. The hug of a friend; the purr of a cat; the re-balancing of serotonin in the brain; the wisdom of a teacher and the honesty of fellow students. The words of a song, bringing my mind exactly where it needs to be.
“Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”
Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a degree in art and writing. She currently lives in Madison, WI, sharing a house with two other Calvin grads. She works as a software support analyst for the State of Wisconsin court system and enjoys painting, rock climbing, biking downtown, and walking her dog.