Archive for December, 2016

Well-Being with Whitney: Silence Speaks During Times of Uncertainty

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

Since the old year will soon transition to the new year, this is a great time to reflect on our lives so far and how we hope to change them going forward. It’s also a time of uncertainty that can discourage us, unless we’re intentional about centering ourselves in what never changes — God’s love for us — in the middle of uncertain circumstances. Spending time in silent reflection (through prayer or meditation) empowers us to discover something ironic: silence actually speaks.

What comes through in the middle of silence is God’s voice, which the Bible describes in 1 Kings 19:12 as a “still small voice” or as a “gentle whisper.” It’s an incredibly powerful voice — but quiet enough to inspire us to listen carefully for it. God doesn’t shout at us above the noise of our lives. Instead, he motivates us to pay attention to his messages by speaking constantly in a loving way that we have to care enough to seek out. Silent reflection is like tuning our ears and minds into God’s frequency that has been broadcasting all along.

One winter day seven years ago, I heard God’s whispering voice while taking a silent prayer walk and wrestling with great uncertainty. My husband Russ needed a lifesaving kidney transplant and a great guy from our church had volunteered to donate a kidney to him. Right before the surgery was scheduled, however, the plans fell apart. That unexpected change made it a real possibility that I’d be a widowed single parent sometime soon.

God didn’t answer any of my questions that I asked on that walk, but in the midst of my uncertainty, he did something else: He sent me a powerful sense of peace. I didn’t know what my future held, but I did know that I could trust God, no matter what. When worry crept into my life (as it often did) after that walk, silent prayer and meditation centered my soul back into the place where I could receive God’s peace again.

Thankfully, a few months later Russ underwent a successful kidney transplant thanks to another hero from our church who made the lifesaving gift. But even before I knew what would happen, I felt at peace, because God met me in the silence and spoke just enough for me to renew my trust in him.

Whatever scary uncertainty you’re facing right now, I hope you’ll make some time to reflect on it during silent prayer or meditation and listen for God’s response. Even in silence, he has something to say to you.

Well-Being with Whitney: Christmas Peace with Fractured Families

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

This is the time of year when the harsh reality of family estrangement hits the hardest. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression rates spike during the holiday season when family stress collides with hopes for Christmas peace. This when we feel the pressure to present the image of a happy family to others in our Christmas cards, letters, and Facebook posts. This is when family gatherings bring together people who don’t get along during the rest of the year, with relatives trying to be on their best behavior. Despite family dysfunction, many of us hope that somehow, Christmas magic will solve our family’s problems. But we can’t sugarcoat our fractured families as easily as icing a broken Christmas cookie.

It’s time to stop magical thinking and start pursuing Christmas peace — peace within ourselves, with our family members, and with God — in the midst of dysfunction.

Ever since I was a girl, I’ve dreaded Christmas even as I’ve looked forward to it, because of the tension in my family. My parents divorced when I was 7 years old, setting in motion a stressful lifestyle for me that included listening to arguments and shuttling between houses. The Christmas season, while full of fun, exacerbated that stress by intensifying the arguments and complicating an already complex schedule. Figuring out who I would visit for Christmas, and when, became a tug of war in which I felt like a rope being pulled too hard. Eating copious amounts of chocolate Santas and singing along to Christmas carols on the radio distracted me somewhat from the stress. But no amount of Christmas magic could dissolve the sadness that settled in my soul like a black lump of coal in a stocking.

Now my family has new fractures in it, from a wide variety of misunderstandings, conflicts, and grudges. So as an adult, I still have never experienced the elusive magical family Christmas I’ve dreamed about experiencing. At least now I can see the situation through the eyes of grace. As an adult, I’ve learned that everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes all of us mess up even when we’re doing the best we can. Sometimes others hurt us so deeply that it’s hard to forgive. Yet still, I’ve continued to fall into magical thinking, naively believing every year when the holiday season hits that the stress will stop and forgiveness will prevail. Then I’m disappointed and frustrated when that doesn’t happen.

No more. This year, I’m giving up unrealistic expectations. I’m accepting that my Christmas experience will likely contain some pain that I simply can’t do anything to change. But that’s not a resignation; that’s a relief. I’m able to relax, having turned off the pressure of trying to make the family that I want happen, or of trying to pretend that it exists, at Christmas. I can finally enjoy peace at Christmas, despite family conflicts.

Families are complicated because people are complicated. People are complicated because they make a tangled mess of good and bad decisions, which God has given humanity free will to do. But we celebrate Christmas because God decided to live among us with unconditional love. That’s the true source of peace. No matter how our family members fail to love us and we fail to love them, we can live in peace because nothing can ever separate us from God’s love, as Romans 8:38-39 promises.

So this Christmas, don’t worry about the dysfunction in your family. God’s love is big enough to cover it all with a beautiful blanket of peace.

Well-Being with Whitney: Fasting from Comfort Food

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Who doesn’t love comfort food? Chips, brownies, macaroni and cheese, ice cream — it’s all fun to eat. Holiday food (from casseroles to cookies) is often comforting. Indulging in comfort food is fine once in a while. But eating comfort food regularly is a sign of using it for something it can’t reliably provide: good feelings. God designed food to nourish our bodies in enjoyable ways, but not to be the source of our comfort, as emotional eating leads us to believe. So fasting from comfort foods to lessen our dependence on them is a healthy choice to refresh ourselves in body, mind, and spirit.

That’s easy for me to say, but not to do.

Potatoes, cheese, and gravy sat before me at the table, all piled on top of each other in a deliciously squishy mess of a meal called “poutine” — the signature dish of Montreal, Canada. As I dug into it on a recent trip there, I savored every bite of that tasty concoction featuring not just one, but three of my favorite comfort foods.

Poutine was so comforting, in fact, that I found myself seeking it out whenever I felt stressed on the trip. Wait a minute, I finally reminded myself, poutine isn’t a friend — it’s just food!

Once again, I’d fallen into the trap of emotional eating. That’s something I’ve struggled with since childhood, when I began rewarding myself for finishing school homework by eating chocolate candy. Fasting from comfort foods from time to time is a great way to remind myself that food is meant for my body — not my emotions — and get back on track with healthy eating habits.

What foods do you turn to for comfort, and why? Do you tend to eat brownies when you’re worried? Do you relieve stress with a bowl of popcorn in front of the TV screen?

After you’ve identified what you’re feeling when you eat, you can choose new ways of dealing with those feelings — ways that don’t involve food. So instead of eating a brownie when you’re anxious, you can pray about what’s worrying you, and rather than eating popcorn to try to relieve stress, you can take a walk. Both prayer and walking can actually help you achieve your emotional goals, unlike comfort food, which may make you feel better for the few minutes you eat it but do nothing to help you in the long run.

Try fasting from your favorite comfort food for at least three weeks, since it takes at least 21 days to develop a new habit. Then, when you return to it, do so only in moderation and after you’ve already filled up on a healthy meal or snack. You can still indulge once in a while — just not in an emotionally dependent way. Enjoy a treat occasionally, but get your comfort from more reliable sources: God and caring people.

Well-Being with Whitney: Take Stress Out of Your Holiday Schedule

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Christmas is my favorite holiday, so for years I tried to pack all the Christmas activities I possibly could into my holiday schedule to enjoy as much Christmas season fun as possible. But that approach to holiday planning ironically diminishes fun, because it leads to holiday stress. I learned that the night I drove around for 5 hours to see prize-winning Christmas lights, only to return home exhausted and wishing I would have just stayed home.

The newspaper I worked for as a reporter held a contest each holiday season for readers to choose the best Christmas lights in area neighborhoods. After helping to compile the results, I got so excited that I set a goal for myself to visit each home in a single evening. I carefully planned my route with a map of the winning homes, then set out on my adventure after work. Inside the car, I blasted Christmas carols and munched on popcorn and chocolate candy to add to the festive atmosphere. For a while, it felt like a traveling party. But after an hour or so, I had driven myself deep into a holiday haze. All of the nativity scenes, Santas, wreaths, snowmen, angels, and other decorations started to blur together in my mind. A myriad of blinking lights on houses, driveways, trees, and bushes twinkled so relentlessly that the details of their award-winning designs escaped me and all I saw was yet another bright thing. Yet I still drove on, determined not to miss anything on my frantic quest for fun.

By the time I returned home late at night, I wasn’t feeling the fun at all. I was just exhausted.

Years later, I experienced the most Christmas fun I’d ever had — while stuck in a hospital! That year I had to cancel many of the holiday activities I’d hoped to enjoy, because my son was due to be born around Christmas. His birth was the reason I was hospitalized over the holiday. I couldn’t even go to church for Christmas that year. Yet the simplicity of that Christmas with God, family, and friends was full of joy.

The Christmas season brings so many opportunities to experience wonder that it’s easy to fill up your December calendar completely. But too many good activities can have a bad effect on you. Cramming too much into your schedule affects your soul like gorging on candy affects your body: it causes harmful stress.

So this year when you’re making holiday plans, intentionally schedule some downtime between activities so you’ll be able to rest and reflect just as much as you celebrate. That way, your soul can fully absorb the wonder of the season — and most importantly, connect to the One whose birthday is the reason for it.