Anxieties are agitated things; thoughts that pace the floor, feelings that bite their lips, a right thumb pressing deep into the left hand to push and scrub into the skin. Anxieties found me before I was a pastor. As my Pop says, “I got them honestly.” Bouts of anxiety dapple the biology of my kin. Add to that my own share of providential trauma along with ordinary cares proportionate to my age and calling and both body and soul contribute plenty to these ants-in-the-pants-moods that crawl about with their jitters and creepers. Getting ordained did not un-anxiety me. In this short essay, I simply want to try to describe some of what we the anxious experience and begin to hint at the grace Jesus brings.
When I was a boy I pleaded with my Pop to let me go into a haunted house. The last room was doused in strobe lights that bounced off of checkerboard floors, ceiling and walls. Awash in disorientation a hand reached out from an unseen cove and grabbed me. Instinctively I ran . . .straight into the wall. I knew I had to get out but I could not see the door even though it was right in front of me. My Pop yelled, “run for the door!” I got up and ran again and this time I hit the wall again and came crashing down. Anxiety is like standing in a haunted house, awash in strobe light in a checker board box with a haunted hand and a voice telling you to run for it. It doesn’t matter that the strobe light was bought around the corner in the daylight nor that the checker board floors were painted on, or that the hand was just a dude trying to make a living. Anxiety makes it scarier than it is. No matter how simple it seems to get to the door and no matter how clear the directions someone gives you, you find yourself on your rump feeling a welp on your forehead.
Flies, Restless Legs, Palantirs and Illusory Images
Anxiety makes a distraction out of ordinary moments that otherwise would bless us. Like flies at the dinner table, we must swat and throw our hands as we try to share with each other about our day. Our dog bites the air and clinks its teeth because these gnats can’t let a piece of bread crumb or pork chop, go.
Anxieties also harass our attempts to rest like mosquitos do. The bloodsuckers bomb the skin when all we wanted was a moment among the breezes at dusk. We run back in for shelter red welps stinging on the legs.
Speaking of legs, anxieties makes a mess of them at night. They can push and shove into a quarrel behind the back alleys of my knees. They take their fight into the shoulder blades and throb there.
These harassments in ordinary moments, times of rest, and at night can act like those Palantirs in fantasy stories. We try to see into the future and they tell us that the future is hopeless and full of doom.
Anxiety alerts us to fear. A threat, real or imagined, hides behind the bushes of our night thoughts and stalks them. Finances, reputation, expectations, sins-real or imagined, kids, wife, imagined enemies in the community, the church, real enemies in the community, real traumas, foul memories. Felt vulnerability with nothing to provide an illusion of control stomps up and down on the steps of our minds. The sun shines outside where friends smile and being loved is real but the hurricane pounds the inner coasts of our being.
Anxieties in care-givers expose our ideals. I hate knowing that at lunch the next day I will likely hold my Bible with hands that tremble. I will speak prayers out of haywire feelings and seek to offer the presence of pastoral care on less sleep than I want. “A pastor doesn’t struggle like this,” I tell myself. With such thoughts, I invite condemnation and shame to join the party and the spiraling continues.
Anxieties shout at us that everything that exists, whether virtual or non-virtual, is rioting, and no one can hold it or us together. Anxieties tempt us to believe that we must panic in the water and thrash about for any life preserver of relief that we can find only then to show us that every buoy we reach for is weighted. This feels miserable. What a blessing it is to have a pastor who understands or a friend who sticks by.
Paul testifies that it is Jesus who holds everything visible and invisible together. Everything real or imagined, foul or tricksy, obeys Jesus. This includes what ails me. What I need is the one through whom everything was created to bend toward my little pile of jittery thoughts and achey bones. Sheltering me He can look into the red-eyes of every looter in my being and with plain strength say, “Enough!” “Be Gone!” “Be Still!” And in my being grace, not as the world gives, can in Him kiss my soul and say, “shhhhh . . . be at peace lovely one. Rest now.”
The Gill Giver
Everything in us wants the waters to subside. For some, they graciously will and do! For such a one, testimony has to do with being pulled onto the beach and chest thumped into breath through the CPR of Jesus’ grace. Anxieties like this never return. But for others of us, we are meant to learn that the presence, and not the absence of our anxieties will teach us the grace we offer others. For us, our ministry flourishes as we receive the fact that grace can hold its breath in the deeps, or better yet, grace has gills, it breathes under the waters that seek to overtake us. For us, we begin to declare to others, “Under oceans in this fallen world I am learning to breathe!” Jesus air tanks our lungs. Sometimes we realize it and we begin to laugh. We realize that we are learning to float! Shouts, and praises, and thanksgivings of deliverance bubble up. We smile under water. It’s like being given fins or flippers. If we were on land it would be as if Jesus’ grace was putting dancing shoes on our feet. Imagine that, dancing shoes for my Presbyterian-hands-to-my-side-slight-nod-of-the-head, old soul! Ha! From there, He bids me, “Go and Preach!” What? Drenched with sea stink and fins, these dancing shoes of mine, I announce the good news. “In the world we have tribulation” I say. “But Jesus has overcome the world!” And all of those dear one’s stinking of sea, lung-tired and treading water, with no fins or gills say, “Really?” “How Can this happen?” “Jesus!” I say. “Let me tell you about Jesus!” He is the gill giver.
The surprising result is that we anxious pastors are becoming makers of psalms; poets able by gracious experience to write songs of deliverance. We have stories, real stories, of rescue! We are veterans of a certain kind of labor, a particular kind of fight. We tell of the times Jesus met us in the deeps and on his back he swam us, showing us the beauties of coral and created nobilities that landlubbers hear about from people like us, but rarely see for themselves.