Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Anxiety Baggage

I carry around more anxiety than I used to. As a child, I had the luxury of not worrying about whether dinner would be ready when I got home from playing around in the neighborhood. As a teenager, I experienced the pains of lovesickness and brokenheartedness, but I never even considered the possibility that I wasn't loved or appreciated by my family and friends. As a college student, I pursued a stressful course of study that left me wondering whether my grades would be good, but I never entertained the thought that I would be unemployed after graduation. Back then, worries were specific and defined. Somehow as an adult, my worries have morphed into less concrete but more powerful anxieties that I carry around wherever I go.

I could make a long list of the things I worry about, beginning with my four children and moving quickly to our parish. There are people and problems and uncertainties and budgets and limitations. Some of my worries are global or national--terrorist threats or elections or economic indicators. Some of them are local or personal--broken marriages or failing schools or damaged friendships. None of them is particularly egregious. There are days when a pressing matter like a dying parishioner or a difficult meeting or a tight deadline increase my level of anxiety, but there isn't one thing or even a particular list of things that occupy my mind. It's more of a suitcase of anxiety--a general sense of concern and worry and doubt that I lug around with me wherever I go. Some days that bag is heavier than others, but I'm always pulling it behind me no matter what day it is.

In Matthew 6:25-33, Jesus says, "Do not be anxious about your life. Do not worry about what you will eat or drink or what you will wear. Can you add even a singly hour to your life by worrying? So why bother being anxious?" Why, indeed? Jesus invites us to see what has become harder and harder for us to see--that, as children of a loving God, we have nothing to worry about.

On the surface, this might sound like unhelpful advice. Jesus says, "Look at the birds. They neither sow nor reap, and your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren't you more valuable than sparrows? Look at the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin, yet has anyone ever been as beautifully arrayed as they? Yet they are here today and tomorrow gathered up and burned in the fire. Aren't you more valuable than that?" Jesus tells us to trust that God will provide for us, but when was the last time God sent you a new winter coat in an Amazon box? When was the last time God went to the grocery store for you? When was the last time God paid your power bill, filled up your gas tank, or paid your mortgage payment? When was the last time God promised to pay your children's college tuition or fund your 401(k)? When was the last time God fixed the relationship with the son who isn't speaking to you or cure the addiction that is plaguing your daughter's life? Don't those things require our effort? Isn't it our job to take care of all of that?

It is. And, if we don't, all of those things will fall apart. But the problem is that we allow our responsibility to become anxiety when we allow material concerns to obscure our sight of spiritual realities.

A few days ago, I tried to explain to one of my children what would happen if an interaction with her teacher did not go well. "What happens if she gets mad at me?" she asked. I replied, "Don't worry about it. Everything will be ok. Just be honest and try your best." Then she said, "What if she sends me to the principal's office?" And I said, "But she won't." And then she said, "What if I get suspended from school?" And I realized I had two different issues going on at once. On the one hand, these concerns were truly irrational, but that didn't matter. Aren't our fears usually irrational? No amount of explaining would help, so I took the other approach. "If your teacher gets mad, and the principal gets mad, and you get suspended, don't worry about it because, no matter what, your mother and I will have your back. We will always love you. Just try your best, be respectful, and know that we will take care of you even if you get suspended." It's easier for me to say that to my daughter than it is for me to believe it about myself. Why is that?

As I have gotten older, my concerns have not been any more real or any more consequential, but my ability to trust that, no matter what, things will be ok has waned. I don't have an earthly mother or father looking over my shoulder and saying, "Don't worry: no matter what we have your back." But Jesus is asking me to see and know that my heavenly father is saying that to me. He's saying that to all of us. No matter what, God has our back. There are no limits to God's love. Nothing can break the bond that exists between us and God. Now, the things that test the limits of that bond are pretty serious. Addiction, depression, poverty, illness, and death are all pretty serious. The hope God gives us doesn't come from ignoring that fact. But it comes from knowing that on the other side of death God is waiting to welcome us into his loving arms. The road between here and there is often filled with deep hardship and considerable loss, but God is bigger than that, and the road always, always, leads to God. Do not worry, Jesus says, because no matter how hard you fall, God will catch you--maybe not in this life but certainly in the next.

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