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Reflections on Anxiety

I am an anxious person.

When I was a kid, more than once one of my parents would say, “Mark, you’re a worry wart.” I hated that. It sounded weak and, now, through adult categories a bit categorical. But I suppose I was.

I was terrified of tornados, to the point of grabbing my favorite stuffed animal, a pillow and a blanket, and scurrying down to the basement every time the sky looked threatening or the clouds turned that green-black that Midwest storms often do, to wait out the inevitable doom of the coming twister. I remember on more than one occasion, being down in the basement, all by myself, wondering why no one else was with me. Sheepishly, I’d go back upstairs, and my Mom would be making lunch in the kitchen, my Dad would be calmly reading the newspaper in his recliner, my brothers would be playing in the backyard (what??), and I’d wonder if I was the only one who realized the alarming situation we were all in.

A number of years ago I did a sprint through the entire Bible, a plan to read it all in 90 days. (Think about that!) It was a challenge, one that extended closer to 100 days, but I still experienced the bird’s eye view of the Scriptures that such a fast read of such big ideas provided. One of my conclusions was that the most common human experience talked about in the Bible is not sin, but fear. How often do we find angels, or Jesus Himself, telling terrified people, “Don’t be afraid?” It would seem that we have a large capacity for fear and anxiety. On our incomplete journey, our unfinished symphony of a life, our pilgrimage on this earth where we live by faith not by sight, how we address fear strikes me as being so important, perhaps centrally important.

Years ago I heard Lorne Sanny, then-President of The Navigators, a Christian organization I worked with for a number of years, talk about dealing with anxiety. He used a phrase I liked, “90 minutes is par.” Whenever he felt overwhelmed with stress or anxiety, he would take time to simply offer his concerns one by one to the Lord, not necessarily expecting a solution to every problem, but simply the act of lifting them up. He would often do this lying in bed, literally lifting his hands to the sky as he lay there, releasing his concerns. He noted that at even his most stressed times as a leader of such a big ministry, it would normally not take more than 90 minutes to release whatever was troubling him, often with fresh insight on how to proceed with several situations. He remarked, “90 minutes is par.” I’ve tried this. It works for me, sometimes. It seems like a very practical outworking of a favorite passage for many of us:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

(Philippians 4:6,7)

Again, praying through this passage, with faith and patience, has often yielded a relief of anxiety for me. It is worth noting that Paul writes this passage from prison. This gives extra teeth to its message.

But I am suspicious of techniques and formulas, and have found that anxiety in my own life does not just go gently into the night. Anxiety is the great interrupter, the great disrupter. Try as I might to banish it from my thoughts and feelings, it arises unbeckoned, interfering with sleep, prayer, calmness, centeredness, attention, and focus. Dealing with fear is going to require a protracted battle, a leaning into the experience, and maybe more than one or two angels declaring, “Do not fear.”

In this same passage on anxiety in Philippians, Paul prefaces his exhortation to “not be anxious about anything” with the simplest of statements: “The Lord is at hand.” (Philippians 4:5) Whoa. Am I the only one who finds these kinds of short, one syllable per word declarations in Scripture to be among the most comforting? It’s almost like what I might say to my 6 year old grandson, “It will be okay. Try it.”

The Lord is at hand. Not, feel that the Lord is at hand. Not, isn’t it good to know that the Lord is at hand. Simpler, more gut-level than that. The. Lord. Is. At. Hand.

Okay, I can hold on to that when the anxiety comes, when I’m not sure what to do, when I fear that my action (or inaction) in a given situation could blow up in my face, when a relationship I’m in reaches a crisis point, when there isn’t enough money or time or love or rest.

The Lord is at hand.

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