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Lay It Down
Living in the Freedom of the Gospel
By Bill Tell
NavPressCopyright © 2015 Bill Tell
All rights reserved.
Into Dark Depths
There was no air in the basement guest room. My heart was pounding. I was dripping with sweat. The room was spinning at warp speed, and I was clutching the bed lest I be flung helplessly across the room.
I managed to get my feet on the floor and sit on the edge of the bed. Whatever was happening, it seemed like I would have more control sitting up than lying down. Control was important. It was still dark. I turned on the light ... four in the morning.
My wife and I were a thousand miles from home. We had left the day before to participate in a missions conference in Illinois, at one of our former churches. The days were crammed full—four days of conference activities and every meal scheduled with close friends and financial supporters. We were eagerly looking forward to reconnecting with many of the special people in our lives. And yet here I was, scared like I had never been in my life.
Elbows on my knees, head in my hands, I sat fighting for control. Tears were rolling down my checks. Then it happened: Overwhelming feelings of dread I never knew existed washed over me in debilitating waves, each one filling me with greater fear and confusion.
In a few hours the Sunday morning I had been anticipating would dawn—a day filled with magnificent worship and overflowing with dear friends. It was supposed to be a good day. Now all that was to be good in the coming day morphed into fear-filled encounters. The thought of being with people was more than I could handle. I couldn't do it.
By this time Sue was awake and aware that something was wrong. The only thing I could say was, "I can't. I can't do it." This became my recurring reply for the next ten months.
Sue went to church by herself that morning and canceled all our appointments for the day. I stayed behind to rebuild my reserves so I could go to the evening service. People were expecting my presence there; I was a long-time missionary of the church, a vice president of The Navigators with responsibility for our student ministries across the country. I needed to show up. A day by myself should replenish whatever it was that had drained out of me.
Yet as we left for the evening service, I was filled with anxiety and a sense that being in a friend-filled public was beyond my ability. Yet it seemed reasonable I could dredge up enough adrenaline and will power to do it. There had always been reserves to draw on. And after all, I was a leader and ought to be there. And so we went.
For a small wall of protection, I sat with Sue in the very last row in one of my favorite sanctuaries— one filled with wonderful memories. But tonight, the organ I loved to listen to was harsh and way too loud. The congregational singing sounded like the raucous crowd at a hockey game. It was awful. The conference speaker seemed to be constantly yelling at me in the back row. After the service, friends surrounded us, and with each handshake and hug I felt something draining out of me. I returned to our hosts' home worse than when I had left, emptier than had I ever felt in my life. My reserves that had always been there were gone. At least tonight I had lived up to people's expectations and performed like a leader ... or so I thought. Each next event at the conference seemed more demanding than I could handle. For four days I would hide during the day from the endless encounters that would take more than I had to give, then show up in the evening with a smile and try to give what I didn't have.
Sue and I knew something was very wrong. I called home to my doctor, a wonderful Christian brother, and shared what I was experiencing— the feelings of fear and anxiety, the dread of meeting with people and of being in public, the panic attacks. He assured me that I was not going to die. I needed to hear that; I was beginning to wonder. He asked me to journal my feelings. This would be new for me, and yet I felt it would be easy—my feelings overwhelmed me. I couldn't miss them.
After the conference we drove to St. Louis to visit our son Jeff, who was in seminary. It was more than I could handle. I needed to hide and be alone. I climbed into bed in the early afternoon. I couldn't do this.
The next day Sue and I were hosting a reception for a significant number of seminarians with backgrounds in The Navigators. All were dear friends and co-laborers. We wanted to communicate our love and affirm their calling to be pastors. The reception was both wonderful and horribly hard. It was good to affirm their callings. It was good to bless them. But with every blessing I was giving what I did not have. "It is one thing to be empty," Macrina Wiederkehr writes, "but when you are asked to feed someone out of your emptiness it can be terrifying."
The thought of traveling home the next day filled me with fear. Returning the rental car, maneuvering through a large congested airport, cramming my 6'2" frame into a cramped airplane filled with people sitting way too close to me—I wasn't sure I could do it. Knowing I was returning to the solitude and safety of our home in the Colorado forest, however, infused me with enough tooth-clenching determination to press through the anxiety.
Home. A visit to the doctor to share my journal, a little rest after an unusually busy summer and fall, and all should be well. But it wasn't. I got worse—much worse. The panic attacks continued. They seemed like heart attacks. Fear and anxiety were my constant companions. All my thoughts became dark and negative. Every one. I knew I was going to die. I knew I had a brain tumor. I knew I had cancer. And heart trouble. The sense of impending doom was inescapable.
Sue is an extrovert and has a huge circle of friends that often call on the phone. I couldn't deal with it. It was like they were all in our house and crushing in on me. There was no way I could dredge up the courage or resources to talk on the phone. If a visitor came to our door, I hid in the bedroom. It was all way too much.
I couldn't watch TV. A video was unthinkable, requiring emotional responses I did not have. I couldn't read; the newspaper was far too stressful, and even my favorite Louis L'Amour cowboy novels were too much. The Bible? No way.
Driving was out. Being in public was out. Church was out. Ministry was out. It seemed as if all of life was out. "I can't" was my response to everything. I had a total inability to tolerate real or anticipated stress, no energy to respond to any demand. My days consisted of sitting in my favorite chair and trying to survive. The darkness was impenetrable. What was happening to me?
More trips to the doctor. Antidepressants. Sick leave. Isolation.
After several months, the darkness slowly began to lift and there were minutes of light, of positive thoughts. Maybe there were some good things in the future? Another month passed, and the feelings of dread, fear and anxiety continued to lessen. The old me seemed to be returning in timed increments.
I was still clueless, however, as to what had hurled me into the months of darkness. Well-meaning friends had plenty of ideas. Lack of whole grain. The wrong vitamins. No discipline. Somehow, deep in my spirit I sensed the root was buried in something more serious. Something was there. The Spirit of God was beginning to gently nudge me to take a look.
There was no question I had a serious case of depression. The genetic tendencies are in my family. Yet could this also be a spiritual crisis? Could it be what Saint John of the Cross described in the sixteenth century as a "dark night of the soul"? He described an extended time in which all the spiritual disciplines lose their appeal, a feeling of abandonment by God. In reality, God is busy working deep in the soul. It is a time of God's loving discipline, of healing what is lame "so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed" (Hebrews 12:13). Was something lame and deformed in my life?
With periods of normalcy returning and the encouragement of The Navigators' US president, I cranked up the courage to have dinner with a counselor. After I had told him my story, he invited Sue and me to spend a day with him and his wife.
Little did we know that this time with Bill and his wife, Grace, was to be the beginning of the most life-changing relationship we have ever had. They were living a truth that we both desperately needed. They understood the grace of God. They understood the gospel. The environment Bill and Grace created for us in their home was incredibly safe. They listened and asked some gentle questions. Bill's comments were few, but he started wondering with me if there wasn't something out of whack in my relationships that had finally sent me into burnout. He closed our time with a suggestion that would change our lives forever: he proposed that we meet with a trusted friend of his for a counseling intensive.
The Missed Warning Signs
Sue and I had always been leery of counselors; we thought they were only for problem people. But I was willing to do anything to avoid a repeat of what I had just been through. Anything—even going to a counselor. I was an accomplished leader of a national ministry; why was I suddenly so incapable of facing the activities of everyday life?
I had joined the national leadership team of The Navigators a couple of years previous to my burnout and depression. I immediately volunteered to direct our national staff conference, a once-every-four-years event for all our American staff. I had experience directing large conferences, so it was natural for me. The bigger the event, the more I loved it. Cameras, lights, hotels, contracts, staging, speakers, bands—I got to orchestrate and control it all.
Two years of hard work culminated in four energy- and Spirit-filled days in Orlando, Florida—the fun capital of America. My adrenaline was surging. I was on top of my game, or so I thought. I was completely unaware of the energy I had expended trying to please twelve hundred Navigators staff. It seemed like they all had opinions of how the conference should or should not be run. My reputation was at stake—twelve hundred times over!
Sue and I knew we would be tired after the conference, so we spent the following week vacationing. I was exhausted, but sleep was fitful and shallow. Strange. While driving back to Colorado my mind would jump ahead to student ministry activities scheduled in the next few weeks, and I found myself not wanting to participate. Strange again—I normally loved student ministry events.
After a few days at home I attended a small retreat with our collegiate ministry leaders. Four days with some of my closest staff friends, and yet I did not want to go and didn't know why. Strange.
It got stranger. The first night of the retreat I woke with a jolt at 3:00 a.m. filled with anxious energy—enough to light up half the state. It happened again the next night, and the next, and the next.
After I returned home my disruptive sleep worsened, along with other vague symptoms. We thought I must be more exhausted than we realized. We canceled upcoming ministry trips and substituted a week in the mountains. There was only one trip we did not cancel: the missions conference at our former church. We figured that after a week in the mountains, we should be ready for normal life again. But there was one problem we were not yet aware of: The issues creating these symptoms were not commitments on my calendar, they were in me.
Inability to rest, lack of desire, disrupted sleep, worry, fear—these were like tremors before a big earthquake.
Two Intensive Weeks
After the missions conference and the dark times that followed, after my ability to engage with people gradually returned, we headed to Denver for the "counseling intensive"—whatever that was. How long it would last was uncertain: maybe one week, maybe two weeks, maybe three.
Our counselor was a gifted, godly, grace-filled man. Sue and I met with him every morning for three hours. In the afternoon there were books to read, videos to watch, and other assignments. That was our routine for two weeks.
We quickly learned why it's called an "intensive." Those two weeks were filled with discovery, both incredibly good and horribly bad. It was beautiful; it was ugly. It was deep. It was internal—inside-out kind of stuff. Those two weeks jumpstarted transformation in our lives. They were the first steps of a long journey of learning to live by the gospel of grace and not our performance.
The first ugly reality that was unearthed was a hurtful and painful lie that had been planted deep within me as a young child and adolescent: the lie that I had less worth and value than everyone else. We began to discover how I subconsciously lived to prove to myself and to others that the lie was not true. But my efforts to disprove the lie did not and could not work. All they did was exhaust me.
The Lie Planted
During high school and college my mom entrusted me with some carefully guarded stories and memories from her growing-up years during the Great Depression. They were not pleasant. As with so many of that generation who lived through the Great Depression, there was deep wounding and scarring. She and her younger brother had been physically abused by her father. As punishment for some infraction he would turn on the gas stove and press their hands against the burner. When she was sixteen, she and her brother ran away from home. To get by she worked as a maid and house cleaner. She cut up cereal boxes to put in her shoes to patch the holes in the soles. Clothes were scarce. So was food.
The sad thing about unhealed wounds and unresolved issues is that we never keep them to ourselves. We may think we do, but we don't. Everyone sees them; they affect everyone around us. And so our unresolved issues pass from generation to generation, mutating as they go. "If we don't learn to transform the pain," Richard Rohr warns, "we'll transfer it."
When I was a preschooler, Mom would take me on the bus to the ghetto. We would spend the morning going from rummage sale to rummage sale, buying clothes for a nickel, or a dime, or a quarter. These rummage sales were often sponsored by churches. I can still see them in my mind: old, narrow ghetto stores with dirty windows and tin ceiling squares half falling down from their high perch, brick walls and bare light bulbs illuminating old church tables piled high with wrinkled old clothes that were never folded, never stacked, just heaped in piles. I hated those rummage sale mornings. Part of my dislike was the boredom of a young boy. But there was more—something that did not feel good about buying used clothes others didn't want.
At the same time, my dad provided well for the family. In a few years we would move to a new home and add an in-ground swimming pool.
In my high-school years clothes were important. They were key to being a part of the "in-crowd." But when I would ask Mom for a particular shirt or jacket or sweater the answer was always "No." The "in" clothes were never on the sale table. I can't remember ever having clothes I really wanted. What were the "in" students thinking of me?
Then I went to college. Being a typical college freshman, I always had more important things to attend to than laundry—things like tennis, fraternity rush, panty raids. One fall morning I dragged myself out of bed, showered, and opened my closet to get a clean shirt. There was only one left: my one and only dress shirt. No problem. I was a chemistry major and intended to spend the day in the lab, so I put on my dress shirt, threw my lab coat on over it, and headed for the chemistry building. That night I returned to my dorm room, took off my well stained and acid-eaten lab coat, and noticed a round, crusty brown spot on my dress shirt. I poked it with my finger, and the cloth disintegrated. My one dress shirt now sported a hole the size of a quarter. Sulfuric acid will do it every time.
To this day I vividly remember going to the JC Penney store in downtown Holland, Michigan, to buy a new dress shirt. One I liked. One I wanted. One that was "in" and would earn my place in the "in" crowd. But I found myself paralyzed in front of the shirt counter, with questions flooding my mind. What would my parents say when I took it home for Christmas? Was I worth having a shirt I liked? Was I worth such an "expensive" shirt?
What was going on in me? Why the paralysis? I was immobilized because I was struggling with a lie. John 8:44 warns us we have an enemy—"the father of lies." His goal is to plant untruths in our lives, and he uses the events of life, the unresolved issues of those around us, the sins of others against us, and our own sins to deposit them in us.
The used and unwanted clothes gave the enemy of my soul the opportunity to whisper in my ear: "Bill, you're only worth five-cent shirts and marked-down sale clothes that no one else wants. You are not worth anything nice. You do not have much value." And so a lie was planted—a lie that would shape how I lived for the next thirty or forty years. It controlled me until it exhausted me, and I woke up in the middle of the night with no reserves left to keep disproving the lie.
Excerpted from Lay It Down by Bill Tell. Copyright © 2015 Bill Tell. Excerpted by permission of NavPress.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Into Dark Depths 1
Chapter 2 Glimpses of Freedom 19
Part 1 God Views Me Differently
Chapter 3 Miracle One: The Unconditional Good News 29
Chapter 4 Free from Performing for Love and Relationship 41
Chapter 5 Free from Condemnation 61
Chapter 6 Free from Punishment 71
Chapter 7 Free from Fear 83
Chapter 8 Free to Live in Peace 97
Chapter 9 Free to Live in Grace 103
Summary of Part One 115
Part 2 God Makes Me Different
Chapter 10 Miracle Two: The Transformational Good News 123
Chapter 11 Free from Working on Not Sinning 133
Chapter 12 Free to Obey 141
Chapter 13 Free to Love 151
Chapter 14 Free to Bear Good Fruit 159
Summary of Part Two 163
Part 3 God Relates to Me Differently
Chapter 15 Miracle Three: The Relational Good News 167
Chapter 16 Free from Shame 173
Chapter 17 Free to Be Loved 181
Summary of Part Three 185