Powerless over anxiety

teeth-grinding

I suspect it would have happened no matter what career path I’d followed, but since my ordination to the priesthood 8+ years ago, I’ve been diagnosed with three medical ailments with stress markers.  I’m honestly not sure what there is in my life to be so stressed about.  I have a solid family, a good job in a good church, and, by and large, things are good.  And yet, my body reacts as if I’m making multi-million dollar decisions on a regular basis; like I’m a brain surgeon working on Stephen Hawking; or the guy who decided to give RGIII another chance.

I am, like most modern Americans, powerless over anxiety.  It is as much a personal issue as it is a societal one.  Yesterday, for example, I spent some time in an outpatient surgery waiting room.  As is the cultural expectation, there was a TV hanging on the wall with one of the 24 hour news networks playing at a reasonable volume.  As I sat there listening to talking heads discuss the Presidential election, I realized that the 24 hour news cycle is designed to make us addicted. They create stress, even when there is none to be had, and let our bodies do its thing.  Eventually, we become so addicted to the cortisol reaction, we can’t look away.  As the 12 Step community would say, we are powerless over anxiety.

The Collect for Proper 20 hits that powerlessness head on.  We ask God to “grant us not to be anxious about earthly things,” but we can’t stop there.  As the old joke goes, you can pray to God to win the lottery all you want, but you have to buy a ticket to have a chance.  We can pray for an end to our anxiety, but part of that prayer has to be about changing our own behaviors as well.  Can we turn off the TV?  Can we step away from the balance sheet?  Can we stop focusing on those things which we cannot change, and instead take the initiative to move the needle where we can?  Can we, in the midst of things that are passing away, turn our focus to things heavenly?

Ask any addict, it is easier said than done, but perhaps this Sunday can be a start.  Maybe I can take this prayer more seriously this week, and begin the process of being set free from my stress and be made alive again in God.

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Don’t be Anxious

One of the most popular phrases in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is “Have no fear.”  It occurs most often in those moments when fear is the most rational emotion available.  When an angel appears in your bedroom, it always comes with “Have no fear.”  When Jesus who was dead miraculously enters your locked room, he says, “Have no fear.”  When the boat is sinking, when the bush is burning, when life is crashing in, “Have no fear.”

I think the modern day equivalent is “Don’t be anxious.”  We live in a world that is built upon anxiety: real and contrived.  Advertising works by creating anxiety in order to relieve it.  “Did you know that more than half of men over 40 have some sort of erectile dysfunction?  Cialis is here to help.”  The 24 hour news cycle exists because post 9/11 we are anxious for breaking news and quick answers.  “We have no idea where this plan disappeared to, but we’ll spend the next 72 hours in a flight simulator offering speculation and conjecture.”  As Baby Boomers reach retirement age, the constant fluctuations of the stock market is a sure and certain source of anxiety.  Even sports, created to a source of leisure are now rife with anxiety.  Last season, when the Packers started 1-2 and their offense was finding little success, quarterback Aaron Rogers took to the airwaves with a simple request.

His words are wise, and our Collect for Sunday invites us to take them to heart as we ask God to grant us the ability to “not be anxious about earthly things.”  This is one of those prayers that I wonder if we really mean it.  I wonder if the congregation is praying along as I say the words or if they are leaving me out on a limb before God.  “You can pray that, Steve, but we’re so conditioned to anxiety that we’re kind of happy where we are.  Haven’t you watched the news lately?  There is plenty of earthly stuff to be anxious about.”

I get it.  Life in the kingdom doesn’t mean life on easy street.  There will still be hardships: medical concerns, financial woes, job stress, family issues, you name it; but God walks alongside us, with a hand on our shoulder, saying, “R-E-L-A-X.  Don’t be anxious.  Have no fear.  I am here.”

Troubled – All Shook Up

You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when things aren’t going right?  When your gut starts to churn and roll and well…

It seems as though Jesus and John knew something about that feeling.  Six times John uses this word tarasso, but he introduces it not in terms of the heart, but with the visual of the Pool of Siloam (5.7) which must be “troubled” or stirred up in order for someone to be healed.  Having introduced it with such an image, John then uses it five more times, each dealing with what it feels like when inner peace is all but lost.

  • John 11.33 – Jesus’ is troubled at the death of Lazarus
  • John 12.27 – Jesus’ soul is troubled in the waning hours of his life
  • John 13.21 – Jesus’ is troubled in spirit as he foretells his betrayal
  • John 14.1 – Jesus encourages his disciples to not let their hearts be troubled
  • John 14.27 – Jesus promises the Holy Spirit that will give the disciples’ troubled hearts peace.

I find the trajectory of this word to be interesting.  It starts, as I mentioned, with the vivid image of water being stirred up.  The next three instances of this word are within Jesus himself.  As the intensity of the lead up to his death grows, his heart gets all shook up again and again and again.  He knows the feeling of anxiety and stress.  He feels within himself the typical human response of fight or flight.  He is hurt by the deceitful action of his trusted companion, Judas, but in a few short moments, something changed.

After Judas flees into the darkness, Jesus turns to the 11 who remained and said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”  As if on cue, Peter takes up the troubled waters, asking Jesus where he is going, and proclaiming his willingness to die for his friend.  The room has shifted, and in an instant, Jesus knows that he must find the peace of God that surpasses all understanding in order to help his disciples through what will be a very difficult few days, and so, he encourages them to find peace.

Isn’t this often the way with loved ones who are ill.  In the midst of their troubled hearts, they find a way to be encouraging to their friends and family to find peace.  Often, we wonder where their strength comes from: in the midst of their own personal battle, they find a way to support those around them.  I think Jesus, in all his humanity, is an example for us in this, when we find the love of God, we find peace, and both are to be shared far and wide.  Don’t let your hearts be troubled, dear friends, seek the peace and love of God.