Do you ever get nervous about what is to come? Do you ever find yourself fearful of the next moment? Do you watch the news at all? It’s crazy to think that our culture has become dependent on fear and worry. It’s almost as if we as people of faith have to struggle more than ever not to give into “the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world”. The crazy thing is that this isn’t a new struggle. We as humans have been quick to cling to fear or dread or worry…even in the good times. I’m reminded of the story in scripture recorded in the book of Nehemiah. The people of Israel had come home from exile, had begun to rebuild, and had even rediscovered the law. They gathered as one to hear the law read and explained to them and their response is recorded here, “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” – Nehemiah 8:9 What should have been this beautiful moment of reclaimed identity became a moment of weeping. Why? Because we’re not very good at joy.
In her book Daring Greatly, author Brene Brown addresses this a bit when she speaks to fear, dread and joy. “We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen–and they do happen–we are stronger.”* The people of Israel wept in the face of the law because they worried once again that the other shoe was about to fall. They had experienced loss and exile and in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy, they wept…they were still fearful. As Brown puts it, joy is scary because it’s vulnerable. It opens us up to the possibility that we could be hurt or let down. But if we never fully experience joy we actually become more hollow, more shallow, more fearful and even weaker in the face of tragedy.
The great thing about that passage in Nehemiah is that it doesn’t stop at verse nine. “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength’.” – Nehemiah 8:10 Did you see that? The joy of the Lord is our strength. Being able to be grateful and joyous in the good things that God gives us actually becomes that which makes us stronger. I often hear Christians quote or paraphrase German philosopher Nietzsche when it comes to tragedy and pain; “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” (Sometimes they just sing Kelly Clarkson) But this isn’t entirely true. Our go-to after facing tragedy and hurt and pain, can be worry or dread over whatever is coming next…and this is not strength. True strength can be found in the gratitude and joy for those surreal life moments when we experience God in a new way and truly come to realize that the joy of God becomes our strength.
* Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012. Print.
Last night I was awakened suddenly after only being asleep for about an hour. And as most parents can testify, when your kid wakes up in the middle of their night it usually means one of two things…nightmare or stomach bug. Unfortunately for our five-year-old and for us, it was the latter. All of a sudden it’s five alarm status as the washing machine gets going, the sprite starts flowing, the Lysol cloud envelops the house and you find yourself as parents staring down the barrel of a gun. Because let’s face it; we hate for our kids to get sick, but we really hate for our kids to get sick and then pass it on to us. So now my wife and I spend the next 24 hours wondering where it will strike next, if it does at all.
The sad thing for many people is that something like this isn’t just a 24 hour reality, but life itself. Life has shown itself to them to be unfair at some point and so now they live the rest of their life waiting for the other shoe to fall. This kind of anxiety is not only unhealthy, but it’s ultimately not what God intended. In the Sermon on the Mount (you know the most famous sermon ever given by Jesus) we find these words, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” – Matthew 6:27. Jesus asks us a very pointed question and one that is bent towards us understanding how worry doesn’t add another hour to our life and it ultimately robs us of the time we find ourselves currently in.
Before you think this is me lobbing missiles at those of you who are worriers from a distance in my worry free life let me assure, you that the reason I write this today is that I are one as well. There are times that I have lost sleep worrying over situations or individuals I can’t control and God time and time again has come to remind me that I’m not making the situation better by my actions. Worrying about the future does nothing but rob you of the possible joy of the present. In that same sermon Jesus goes on the share with us, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” – Matthew 6:33. So if you find yourself waiting on the other shoe to fall, staring down the proverbial barrel of a gun or just worrying about something you can’t control, then maybe it’s time to actively pursue His Kingdom and His Righteousness. And how does this happen? By getting outside of ourselves. By loving the least, ministering to the poor, praying for our enemies, washing the feet of our fellow servants and embracing the call of Christ. So may you today find that you cannot add an hour to your life by worrying, but you may add joy and contentment through serving.
I enjoy riding my bike. When I say that I need you to understand this is a bicycle and not a motorcycle (evidently those terms can be synonymous). The tricky part about my bike riding habits was that for the most part this was an early morning activity. That being said, as it began to get darker earlier (roughly around late June) my riding started to be come a bit more difficult. In fact, roughly around mid-August I gave up my riding so that I wouldn’t injure myself or any number of early morning walkers around the UTPB trail. However, about a week ago I purchased a bike light and all of a sudden my world changed. Welcome back early morning bike rides.
I set out on Monday morning of this week around 5:30 AM for what was sure to be an amazing ride. And I thought that this would be about as easy as driving a car with headlights…boy was I in for a shock. Imagine driving a car with a single headlight that lights up about as much as the width of your car only. Sounds tricky, right? It took me quite a while to get used to this. I am sure it greatly improved others being able to see me, but I really had to focus on being able to see the things in front of me (especially when there were no street lights). In fact, any time I took my focus away from that point of light it made it that much more difficult to get adjusted again. I found though, as I was able to maintain my focus ahead I enjoyed the bike ride all the more and was free to ride once again in the early morning hours.
This past week for me has kind of been a bit like an early morning bike ride. In life, I think that for many of us, it is easy to get overwhelmed by our to-do lists. Whether it is job related, family related, ambition or future plan related, etc. life can be quite a lot to deal with at times. Even in ministry one can get overwhelmed by the to-do’s of running a church or para-church program. And I will let you in on a secret…pastors struggle with stress just as much as non-pastors do. But in the midst of the heaviness of this particular week I was reminded of my bike ride. As long as I was able to focus on that point of light, I was enjoying the ride. Sure there were other things about the ride to worry about, like hitting a rabbit or a pedestrian. But as long as I was focused on that light those other things became part of the background. I was reminded of the verse from Matthew 6:33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The “all that” Jesus is referring to? The stuff of life. The to-do lists. The stuff that if we are not careful can rob us of our true focus; God’s Kingdom. So if you find yourself overwhelmed with the to-do’s of life today…stop. Take a breath and ask yourself, ‘Am I following after God’s Kingdom first?’ If you are, then I think you will start to see the other things fall into place behind your true focus.
To say that life for a youth pastor in the summer time is busy is a given. The in-continuity in the schedule, in family meal times, lack of sleep, and the other resultant issues can sometimes become overwhelming (If you don’t believe me look back at the inconsistency in my blog posting). Thinking back on the last few weeks is almost dizzying. And yet I now find myself getting stressed over the ensuing months and all they hold as well.
The problem for me, as I am sure it is for a lot of you, is that I allow routine and expectations to rule the day instead of being concerned with the important things. Instead of working so that I can live I find myself falling into the trap so that I am living to work. And it’s a difficult reality for me with my particular vocation/career because it usually escapes the normal definitions of work. A lot of people have trouble defining their life by their work but my life has to be defined by my work as my work is of a different calling (I am not saying this to invalidate other careers, but rather to articulate the feelings that many pastors probably have). I was recently reminded about the detriment to the souls of our families this prioritization can have with a recent conversation and from reading this recent little blog post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-macy-stafford/the-day-i-stopped-saying-hurry-up_b_3624798.html (The Day I Stopped Saying “Hurry Up”)
I have been spending a lot of time in the Sermon on the Mount lately and the one passage that always seems to stand out is Jesus’ treatment of our hurrying about. He says that it boils down to worry and chasing after the wrong things. He then concludes with the following, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:33-34 Jesus reminds us that in pursuing the Kingdom of God first that the cares and concerns of tomorrow can be overcome. And so it’s important that the Kingdom is not found in schedules, events, chaos and running about. Rather the Kingdom of God is like small moments (mustard seeds or yeast if you will) that take place and give birth to something beautiful and massive. It is fixed moments in time where we fully enjoy each others’ and God’s presence. It is shared laughter, provisions, possessions, community…it is life lived out for the other instead of pursuing for our own consumption.
And so I think about tomorrow; and whether or not I like it, tomorrow will consume some of today. But I strive for it not to rob me of today and those around me. I hope that at the end of each day I can look back and feel it well spent, for that is all I have been promised. It may require more compromise and change than what I am used to, but I think that could be okay. And maybe then I will understand a bit more of what it means to live out the kingdom of God.
It’s time for some honesty. Not that this blog hasn’t been about that since day one, but certain events in my life have brought me to a different place…a more raw place. I have always loved the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount and I particularly loved the passage on worry. I even finding myself quoting the famous verse from Matthew 6:34 quite often, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” But recent events in my family’s situation have had me doubting whether or not it is quite so easy to live this out.
The preceding text in this passage seems easy enough for me and my family. We have never been too consumed by things and if you know me you know I am probably not too consumed by what I wear (with the exception of the occasional Converse purchase). Our eating needs have never been too particular either…after all, we are a youth ministry family. But recently it seems as if all of the events around us were spinning out of control. It seemed that almost every circumstance that came barreling down on us crippled us in a different fashion. Our family dynamic, shelter, health and even financial security were all threatened within a matter of two weeks and honestly…it was too much.
I’m not saying I lost faith or anything, but I also wasn’t in the best place. Loss of appetite, inability to sleep and troubled thinking were just a few of the symptoms that characterized my demeanor for the last week. And all the while the words of Christ to “not worry” kept coming back to me. How in the midst of physical impairment induced by anxiety am I supposed to “not worry”? To tell you the truth, I was at a loss. In and of myself I felt like I was drowning. But that’s when I came to a certain realization…I wasn’t alone. I had never been alone. Outside of the presence of the Holy Spirit, God has granted us each other as ambassadors of His peace. The words that we speak and the presence we impart to each other are sometimes the way in which God imparts himself to us more fully.
A passage that is often quoted out of context in order to present a household of inequality is Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” We often forget the verse that immediately precedes it, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The anxiety and worry that had been crippling me was also hurting those around me…and I knew it. The hard part for me was giving voice to my inadequacy and allowing myself to admit my shortcoming, even to my best friend: my wife. But through humbly admitting and giving voice to how the anxiety was affecting me, my bride was able to speak peace into my life where I saw none.
And maybe this is where healing comes…in confession, in submission. We are made after all in the image of our Maker who in and of Himself is characterized by humble community (a Triune God who chooses to suffer). Maybe as we live out lives of submission and confession to one another we find ourselves surrounded by God’s peace and free to live outside of the worries that characterize life absent of the presence of God. May you find yourself in need of community this week if only to understand the presence of God all the more.
Grace and Peace