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A bumper sticker forced me to smile yesterday—not so much because of its humor, but more for the sense of perspective it provided. “I had friends on that Death Star,” it said. Somehow life’s problems don’t seem so big when they are compared to the big problems other people have, whether in real life or in the movies.

I’ve been in an emotional trough this winter and spring. Several things have contributed to this low, some under my control and others not. Most of them I’m not inclined to share at this time. But two specific events this week have tested my spirit. We speak of “first world problems” and compare them to the violence, poverty, hunger, disease, and abuse that other people endure every day in this world. I’m not asking for anyone’s sympathy. (Prayers are always welcome.) But today I’m feeling stressed and blue, and I just thought I’d share a few things.

Wednesday I had the oil changed in my car. Thursday when I started the car, the “Service Engine Light” came on. I happen to drive past the service garage on my way to work, so I pulled in there and waited twenty minutes for them to open. A young man looked at the car quickly, said that rain water had gotten on the spark plugs, and the car was good to go. I got to work and back and to school and back without any problem. Then, Friday the light was on again. (Don’t sing to me about Paradise by the Dashboard Lights. Dashboard lights are always bad news.) I didn’t want to lose another twenty minutes, so I drove to work, and then stopped at the garage on my way home. The manager didn’t have a mechanic to spare—they were all in the middle of big jobs, so he suggested I stop by first thing Saturday morning. I did that, and after waiting half an hour, I was told that there is a small oil leak by the cam. It will cost about $100 to repair and will take about an hour. I didn’t have that hour today—I am scheduled to work all day—but the mechanic said the car will operate safely through the weekend. So I will stop by the garage again for that repair Monday morning.

It’s stressful driving a car with a warning light ablaze. It’s stressful not knowing what is wrong and how dangerous it might be and how much it might cost. It’s only slightly better knowing those things.

But now the plot thickens. When I got home Friday afternoon, I was told that my youngest daughter was at one of those clinics that have popped up around the city to replace hospital emergency rooms. Details were sparse, but she had hurt her foot. So I drove to the clinic. Her foot was being X-rayed when I arrived. She had been at the final run-through for a play in which she was scheduled to appear Friday night and today. She had spent hours rehearsing with the cast, singing, dancing, assembling costumes. This was to be a really big deal. The last two years her love for live theater has grown, and this was to be her first time on stage in a show for an audience. Career plans may be in the works.

Anyhow, the mother of another girl her age had driven my daughter home from the rehearsal, and my daughter realized that she had forgotten her house key. No one was home, and the front door was locked. She told the driver and the daughter that she could get in through the back door. Evidently this has been done before; no one ever told me. Our house is two stories, with a deck on the back that enters the upper floor; the deck is surrounded by a waist-high rail. There is no stairway to the ground. But my daughter said that with a boost from the other girl she could get to the rail and over and then get into the house. (Yes—we often left that door unlocked, because I didn’t think anyone could get to the deck from the ground. That has now changed.)

Instead of getting onto the deck, my daughter fell and landed hard on her foot. Then they proceeded with what should have been their first plan: they drove to the mall where another of my daughters was working and borrowed her house key. When my daughter came home from work and saw how much her sister’s foot was swollen, she knew medical help was needed and took her sister to the clinic. I met my daughter there, and soon the doctor was with us after seeing the X-rays. He said that no bones are broken but there is soft tissue damage that will need two weeks or more to heal. Meanwhile, she is to keep off the foot—no sports, no dancing, and definitely no performing in this play.

My daughter burst into tears. I felt heartsick myself. The doctor tried to lighten the mood, but to no avail. As we drove home, my daughter repeatedly berated herself for doing such a stupid thing. Though I was tempted to agree with her assessment, I was a good father and spoke more kindly to her, saying that accidents happen and there will be other shows in her future and anything else that came to mind to try to ease her burden.

Again, these events are on top of other stuff going on that I may or may not share. In the grand scale of life it’s small stuff. In fact, as I was driving to the pharmacy to fill a pain medicine prescription for my daughter, I saw a car ahead of me pull to a stop. The driver then turned into a driveway, stopped and got out of her car. I saw her begin talking with an older woman who was wearing a sweat shirt and what appeared to be pajama pants. The older woman had a confused look on her face. My mind supplied the rest of the story—perhaps accurate, perhaps not. Mom has dementia and went wandering, and her daughter had to drive around town searching for her. Impulsive teenagers and their fathers have no monopoly on life’s problems.

I hope your weekend is going well. J.

 

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Stressing in the shadow of the moon

Traveling to see the total eclipse of the sun this week meant spending time with extended family. Now I love the members of my family. We get along well with each other, probably better than the average American family. But spending time with family still is stressful. It includes sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, eating on a different schedule, eating different foods, and being exposed to television programs I prefer to avoid. I am an introvert, a highly sensitive person, and am subject to bouts of anxiety. Not every member of the family understands my situation or has any sympathy for my problems.

The first problem was travel. Over the past five years, I have endured increasing dread over road trips. I wake up the morning of a road trip anticipating that something will go wrong with the car, leaving us stranded on the side of the road. In this case, the dread began building two days before the time of departure. I responded by praying that we would be kept safe throughout the trip. We were in fact kept safe, but not in the way I had hoped.

About halfway into the trip, stopping at a gas station, we heard a noise from the front of the car. To me it sounded as if something was scraping against the tire. We first heard it only while steering through turns. As we approached our destination, we also heard the sound when stopping, even without turning. I got out of the car and inspected the wheel well, and nothing was even close to touching the tire. We arrived at the house without further incident, but we knew that someone would have to look at the car before we did any more driving.

Our host knows more about cars than I do, so he went out and looked at the car. He noticed rust on the brake rotors, an indication that the brake pads were not coming in contact with the rotors as they should. He suggested that we visit a local mechanic to have the brakes checked. He also noticed that the front tires were badly worn and indicated that the mechanic would probably want to replace those as well.

The next morning I took the car to the recommended mechanic. He had a lot of customers and said the repair would not happen until the next day. He did say that he would look at the car the same day and let me know what work needed to be done. That meant that I spent the entire day waiting for a telephone call—not a good situation for someone prone to anxiety and in someone else’s house. When the call finally came at the end of the day, the news was not good. Front and rear brakes needed to be replaced—not only brake pads, but rotors and drums as well. All four tires needed to be replaced—the front pair were worn, and the back pair had been cut by failing shock absorbers. The noise we had heard was not from the brakes, though. That noise was from a ball joint in the front of the car. The total repair amounted to hundreds of dollars, although they threw in every discount they could find, including a one hundred dollar reduction given by financing the repair through a credit card supplied by their company.

In short, my feelings of anxiety about the car excursion were accurate. We were in danger of brake failure, which would have been worse than being stranded at the side of the road. My prayers for safety were answered; it may well have been miraculous that the brakes did not fail at any point of the trip.

Meanwhile, we had a second day without the car, a day that had been set aside for a visit to another city. We ended up making that trip in a borrowed car—one more unfamiliar situation to aggravate stress and anxiety.

Then came the actual day of the eclipse. My daughter and I were already energized in anticipation for the event, a feeling not far from the usual anxiety of life. Fortunately, the moon and the sun were not affected by our feelings, and we all enjoyed the show.

The final stage of the tour was driving home in a newly-repaired car. The night before that scheduled drive found me very unsettled. To make matters worse, the dinner menu that evening contained several foods that irritate my digestive system. I tried to limit my intake to small servings of those foods, but the combination of all of them—along with the building stress over the long drive—left me in severe discomfort. This experience is a vicious cycle—anxiety makes digestion worse, while bad digestion makes anxiety worse. The unexpected noise of a vacuum cleaner sent me over the edge. Our host tried to make things better by saying, “J., calm down, we don’t need this drama.” Of course that did not help at all. I needed to get away to another room, be alone for a while, focus on my breathing, and regain control of myself.

It would help if more family members understood what anxiety means. Too often they do act as if anxiety is a choice, something that can be controlled, and therefore a cause for blame. I know that if I showed up with my leg in a cast, they would not ask me to walk normally and blame me for being different. Because anxiety is not visible, it does not gather the same sympathy and understanding as a broken leg, or even a common cold. Even though that makes family events more challenging, I still love the members of my extended family and am glad for the time we are able to spend together. J.

Perspective

My daughter called me last evening, frantic. She was driving to a dance competition in a city three hours away, but her car had stalled on the Interstate and would not start. We explored various options—were other dancers from her school liable to be along before I could get there?—but eventually it was obvious that I would have to meet her at her car and get her to the competition, and also I would have to arrange to get her car towed so it could be repaired.

It was dark by the time I found her and her car. We got her dress and supplies and overnight bag and pillow transferred into my car. I made sure that her car would be towable in the morning. Then we continued on our way. She needed to text several people about her situation, since she had first told them about the car trouble, so she was quietly working on her phone for a while. Then, in a soft voice, she asked me if I had heard about the shootings and bombings in Paris. I told her I had heard preliminary reports before leaving the house, and she proceeded to fill me in with the known details about the terrorist attacks and their victims.

After a while, she looked up and said to me, “I guess having the car break down on the interstate isn’t such a terrible thing, relatively speaking.”

Yes, I was proud of her for that moment of perspective. Canceling my evening plans and driving until nearly midnight suddenly did not seem such a terrible inconvenience either. I can read and watch television other nights. This night we could pray for the families of those murdered, for those in Paris who were injured, who were frightened, and who were in need of the Lord’s gentle care.

Jesus told his followers that wars and rumors of wars (as well as earthquakes, famines, and other troubles) would fill history right up until the time of his Glorious Appearing to inaugurate the new creation and to complete the fullness of his promises, those promises already kept by his sacrifice and his resurrection. Accepting the knowledge that evil will happen is not surrendering to the evil. God’s people should continue to be horrified by every violent crime, by every act of war, and by every way that people hurt other people in this sinful world. Evil does not win so long as we continue to hate evil. While we continue to speak of a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness, we also call upon governments in this world to accomplish their God-given task, “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). The government, acting as government, does not forgive sinners; it punishes the wicked and the evil and protects its citizens. This truth does not cancel the other truth that the cross of Christ is bigger than all evil combined, rescuing victims of sin and also sinners when they trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.

The Bible speaks of Tribulation, not as a count-down to the Last Days, but as a sign of the Last Days that has stood since Jesus died and rose from the dead. Enemies of the Church will attack and persecute Christians. Wicked people will pursue senseless violence for their own evil purposes. Wars and rumors of wars will continue. As citizens of this world, we fight evil with strength; as citizens of God’s Kingdom, we know that the victory over evil has already been won.

Some weeks it seems as though Murphy’s Gremlins have targeted me and my family with special maleficence. Car troubles and appliance troubles have plagued our lives and our family budget unremittingly for more than three straight years now. The awareness that “it could have been worse” seems hollow after frequent repetitions. Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall distinguished between miserable lives and horrible lives, suggesting that those who are merely miserable should be glad that their problems are not horrible. As a Christian, I can say more. Whether I suffer from the petty annoyances of Murphy’s Gremlins or whether I must face true evil in its ugliest form, I know that Christ has made me more than a conqueror by winning the battle and the war against evil. I know that nothing in all creation can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Thank you, dear daughter, for that moment of perspective. J.