Growing up the lonely son of a perennially anxious, self-critical father, who just so happened himself, to be the lonely son of a perennially anxious, self-critical mother has a rather profound way of fundamentally shaping how one sees and understands his place in the world.
At this point, I'd like to draw your attention to the 8 year-old suddenly bursting into tears upon striking out, jumping offsides, making a “b” (or worse) in Science, or losing a gym-class volleyball game where no one is keeping score. Please don’t immediately roll your eyes, my self-worth and place in the universe was dependent upon being so successful that I could (at some point) become immunized against possible abandonment. But by all means, when you’re out of earshot in the minivan with the rest of your family on the way to score buffet pizza from Mr. Gatti’s, feel free to speak endlessly about the tragic beauty of witnessing a little league parent/child/umpire tantrum of hurricane force proportions.*
*NOTE: Cue Jurassic Park Sam Neill furiously removing his sunglasses upon first spotting a 2-ton Brontosaurs in person.
Couple this generational predilection for anxiety and self-loathing, with militantly dispensationalist Christianity (of the “I’ve seen every episode of the John Hagee rapture hour and unending phone bank fundraiser for the Lord’s imminent return” variety), and you will inevitably create a child whose operant stance toward the practice of his Christian faith is akin to someone terrified of being abandoned while searching for Chex mix and Mountain Dew during a middle school field trip gas station pitstop, as he constantly peers over his shoulder making sure the bus is still there.
Which may be why, anytime I found myself home alone as a middle schooler, I sometimes called my mom at work to make sure she hadn’t been spirited away to the heavens like Elijah.
Which may be why, as an anxious and self-critical nine-year-old (perhaps you’re quickly noticing a trend that took me years of therapy to pick up on) I often woke up in the middle of the night in order to inquire of my curmudgeonly father as to the likelihood of my name being written in “the Lamb’s book of life”.*
*NOTE: this is not hyperbole, this is: IF YOU DON’T READ THIS ARTICLE AND IMMEDIATELY CHANGE YOUR MIND ABOUT YOUR DANGEROUSLY WRONGHEADED POLITICAL PERSUASIONS YOU WILL PROBABLY BE FLOATING FACE DOWN IN A RIVER COME NOVEMBER.
Which may be why I "committed my life to Jesus” somewhere north of 3 times before turning 18.
Which may be why, as a formerly rat-tailed 7 year-old, I actively campaigned for George H. Bush during the Kids Vote ’92 straw poll in my elementary school, only to sit dumbfounded on my grandfather’s plaid couch during election night while the "godless Clintons" ascended the dais upon which 8 years of Democratic policies, Whitewater, and Lewinsky/Jones scandals would dominate the news cycle.
Which may be why I refused to read the Left Behind series at all (despite its rampant popularity in my community), as it’s incredibly difficult to read a fictional account of God cooly leaving people no one likes behind when the majority of your prepubescent theology carries the inherent understanding that the divine station wagon taking loved ones and friends to the great RNC in the sky, will suddenly forget to wait on you while you’re in the bathroom.
You: “But, Eric, surely you grew out of this laughably thin worldview upon reaching college or getting married or attending graduate school or becoming a pastor yourself or attending graduate school again or writing a piece about how this kind of faith is so obviously toxic, right?”
Me: (stares at shoes) “Uhhh, yeah, sure.”
As people are so fond of saying about “rappers” (am I using that word correctly? I always feel about as cool as a middle school substitute teacher* saying it out loud), you can take the kid out of the fear-based eschatology (or “streets”), but you can’t take the fear-based-eschatology (or, again “streets”) out of the kid.
*NOTE: before you begin penning a strongly worded response to my over-generalization about the “coolness” (or lack thereof) of substitute middle school teachers, I was one for a week last year, and at this point will see myself out thankyouverymuch.
What I mean is that when we fail to deal with the thing rattling loudly behind the thing in our belief systems and worldviews and religions and politics, we quickly discover an anxious consistency to the practice of quite contradictory faith orientations. If you don’t believe me, compare the rhetoric of your most fervid (this is a real word) Trump or Hillary supporting friends:
- Does it reach the heights of apocalyptic hyperbole?
- Does it seemingly work it’s way, uninvited, into any and every conversation?
- Does it teem with evangelistic zeal and blatant disregard for the audience’s participation or interest in continuing?
- Does it actually reference a soon-coming end to the world were a certain event to take place?
Then it’s the same voice, just maybe in a different t-shirt.
Whenever people of great faith desperately invite me to believe something, give something, take something, join something, vote for something, or become something (with tears in their eyes and cracks in their voices) part of me is deeply at home.
I get it, I speak it, very often, I am it.
It feels like religion should feel, if that makes any sense.
However, from whatever platform, or side of the aisle, or denomination, or pulpit it emits, the fundamental pulse of this message is, at bottom, fearful anxiety. God is anxious about God’s place in the world, God’s place in your heart, God’s place in the history books, God’s place in the White House, and the schools, and the touchdown celebrations of NFL wide-receivers. Therefore pastors are anxious about their places in the world, their places at the table, their places in the worship service, their places in the divine hierarchy. Therefore congregations are anxious about their places in the world, their places at home, their places at the table, their places in the divine hierarchy.
For centuries, the Church has happily baptized this anxiety as holy, sacred, and integral to the experience of what it means to be a “follower of Jesus” (it's rather helpful to inculcate generations of people desperate for a purposeful direction to their life with the message of "come back next week with your checkbook and we'll tell you more"). To be ever humble (in this approach) is to be ever-anxious about being left behind, whether in some tired, apocalpytic-fan-fiction sense of the word, or in the far more socially acceptable concerns about the downward or upward afterlife trajectories of ourselves or our loved ones (not to mention the downward or upward trajectories of our net worth and/or body mass index).
However, for Jesus (a man whom many have and continue to this day to persist believing is “God in the flesh”) to enter the world in the arms of a teenage mother from a 1st century backwater, to travel the region itinerantly, sleeping outside while women covered his expenses, only to be anxiously put to death by those charged with faithfully passing down revered and inherited holy tradition because of his decidedly unorthodox teachings about the nature of God and God’s posture towards the universe, it would invite the question:
is God really as anxious about God’s glory, God’s plan, God’s place in the world, God’s honor, and God’s power as we might imagine?
What if, in a world of constant motion, upward mobility, breathtaking innovation, and endless connectivity -- a world defined by a stubborn fear of missing out on something, a world in which to rest, to take a day off, and to believe things will be there when we return tomorrow is tantamount to heresy -- the very thing we need to survive isn’t more faith in increasingly bombastic and frenetic amounts,
it’s quiet trust and radical okay-ness.
A trust/okay-ness succinctly characterized in the book of Exodus, which finds the ancient Hebrews having been powerfully liberated from their Egyptian oppressors only to be abandoned to starve in the wilderness of pre-history. Soon, their (very real) cries for food, water, and shelter are met with the appearance of what the text refers to as “manna” (which, hilariously, translates from the original Hebrew as “what is it?”) each morning on the ground outside the encampment of God’s people. The Hebrews are instructed to collect only enough manna for that day (and to double that on Fridays to cover them over the weekend, TGIF YA DIG?!); if they hoard too much, the manna spoils in their tents.
The Hebrews live this way for years, with just enough for the day, trusting that tomorrow there’ll probably be enough on the ground to go around, as long as no one gets grubby about it. You might say, scarcity and anxiety literally rot in the tents of God’s newly-freed-from-slavery people in their wilderness encampment on the edge of recorded history. This is necessary, not as some sort of divinely ordained "test" (like God burning ants with a giant magnifying glass just to see how quickly we catch fire), but as a way of detoxing from the oppressive constraints of religiously motivated anxiety put upon these former slaves toiling away for the glory of the world’s most powerful emperor in the world’s most powerful empire (at this time).
Speaking personally, religiously motivated anxiety (almost daily) threatens to destroy everything worthwhile about my faith, and my relationships, and my life. In my job as a pastor, I was anxious about not doing enough to save people, or convince people, or reach people, or encourage people to do more, be more, and believe more. I was anxious about the anxious needs of other people and their anxious desires for me to save people, convince people, reach people, or encourage people to do more, be more, and believe more.
I was anxious, even as a 29 year old, that God and life were going to leave me behind.
Without my job as a pastor, I’m anxious about where my paycheck comes from, I’m anxious about where my son’s college tuition comes from, I’m anxious about where my sense of meaning, and worth, and value, and place in the universe come from. I’m anxious about being enough, doing enough, believing enough (especially when compared to other, more faithful (always interchangeably read: wealthy or widely read) people).
I am anxious, even as a 31 year old, that God and life are going to leave me behind.
It’s the same voice, just maybe in a different t-shirt.
Perhaps, it may finally be time to stop spending the lion’s share of my life anxiously dragging so much sustenance back into my tent each day in hopes that this day maybe it won’t spoil, or maybe I’ll save enough, or maybe I’ll send enough emails, or maybe I’ll ask enough, pray enough, or do enough to feel okay about the future and my place in it.
Sadly, the next morning it always spoils.
And so will my life if I keep living this way.
In the midst of my rotting failure, I’m patiently reminded (almost daily) that God isn’t so much a king or a ruler anxiously demanding fidelity from slaves charged with erecting his temples and towers, as much as God is a tree, quietly converting the carbon dioxide of our fears about the future, our regrets about the past, and our anxiety about the present into oxygen and light and shade for generation after generation after generation.
God is eternally non-anxious.
When I am able to meagerly trust this, I find there’s enough for me in my tent, and there’s enough for you in yours, and if we can remind ourselves this now, and our sons and daughters this tomorrow, then odds are, at some point we change the world, even if we never live to see it.
Which, I suppose, is the most radical sort of non-anxious trust there is, the kind that doesn't have to see it to believe it.
photo credit: Creative Commons