This week and next, we’re going to start wrapping up our Blessed Are the Crazy series – and this week, we’re talking anxiety.
So before we hear the choir offer us our Scripture lesson today, I want to review the Anxiety Bucket illustration really quick.
If you were with us a few weeks ago, you’ll remember that we all carry an invisible bucket around with us where we put all of our worries and stress and anxiety. When the bucket overflows, and we start spilling our stuff everywhere, is when bad things happen.
But there are different kinds of anxiety that go in this bucket.
There’s existential anxiety – this is your gut instinct, that reminds you to breathe and eat and drink water and generally keeps you alive.
Then, there’s chronic anxiety – this is the longer-term stuff that you’re dealing with on a somewhat regular basis. Are the kids going to be okay? Are my grades going to get me into the college I want? Is my retirement account going to last as long as I hope?
Finally, on top, there is situational anxiety – you tripped and ripped a hole in your favorite pair of pants, the muffler fell off the car, everyone’s got the flu. This is short-term, deal-with-it-right-now kind of anxiety.
So with that image in mind, let us listen together for the word of the Lord.
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the sad, the stressed, the depressed, the numb, the frustrated, and the anxious – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This is how Jesus opens his Sermon on the Mount. He’s been travelling through Galilee, teaching and proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven has come near. His fame spreads through nearby towns and even other countries, and people begin following him around – waiting to see what he’ll say next.
He notices the crowds, so he goes up to a high place where everyone can see and hear him, and this is what he says:
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek, the hungry and the thirsty, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
He goes on to talk about generosity, humility, anger, love for our enemies, prayer and fasting and service.
And about halfway through his sermon, he begins talking about worry.
And basically, what he says is: don’t. Don’t worry. God will provide what you need. Let tomorrow worry about itself.
Jesus calls us to a radical trust, relying on the goodness and providence of God, taking our lives one day at a time and dealing with things as they come.
And this simple word is good and beautiful advice for all of those moments when those of us who are dealing with some of those situational anxiety things, or we feel stuck worrying about things that are absolutely out of our control. It’s a soothing reminder that God is not trying to make our lives unnecessarily difficult – that we are loved and held by the same God who created the world.
But for folks with mental health concerns around anxiety – whether it’s an anxiety disorder, chronic stress, PTSD, or something else – saying something like “just stop worrying so much!” is a little bit like saying “be safe!” to someone who’s drowning.
Like, oh, thank you, I hadn’t thought of that. Let me just turn my brain off.
That’s not how that works.
Remember those different types of anxiety we went over?
Each of those layers, when you have too much of it, can have some pretty drastic effects on your own sense of well-being and on your relationships.
Existential anxiety is the kind of anxiety that keeps us alive – it’s a survival mechanism. I came across this great and hilarious exchange online the other day, which actually does explain a lot about things like generalized anxiety disorder:
Person #1: “how did my ancestors survive the brutal unforgiving wilderness when I get anxiety sweats from going to Target”
Person #2: “to be fair im sure your ancestors would have the exact same reaction going to a Target”
Person #3: “In the brutal unforgiving wilderness false positives cost nothing and false negatives are expensive. You’re better off being afraid of something that can’t hurt you than not afraid of something that can hurt you.
In a world where we mostly aren’t in danger, day to day, as long as we don’t play in traffic or jump off something, that’s no longer quite as [helpful.]
We got our anxiety from a long, unbroken line of ancestors who were scared enough to survive, and pass on those genes!
It helps me sometimes to think about that at night, when I can’t sleep because my heart is pounding over something like ‘what if my usually reliable alarm clock doesn’t work in the morning for some reason and I’m late for work and lose my job and everyone hates me.’ There’s nothing wrong with me, I just have a lot of extra, unused run-from-tigers juice that my grandparents left me.”
Anxiety, in and of itself, is not a sin. Anxiety disorders do not come from a lack of faith or a mediocre prayer life. These are legitimate mental illnesses, and the causes can be complex and intertwined: family history and genetics, an individual’s brain chemistry, a traumatic event or situation, chronic and repeated exposure to stressful or toxic situations, and even head injuries can all play a role in how someone’s brain works.
Which brings us to that chronic anxiety – the longer-term worries that we carry around.
If we get overloaded with constant stress over long periods of time, it’s not just our minds that suffer – our bodies react to that stress, too – and it can have long-term health effects.
Even childhood experiences that we don’t cognitively remember can affect us long into adulthood – affecting our relationships, our coping mechanisms, our ability to concentrate and learn, and even our risk factors for developing physical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. (For more information, check out www.acestoohigh.com.)
But all of this presents a sort of theological problem for us: if Jesus calls us to radical trust and calls us to take risks in relationships and service and hospitality, but for some or many of us, our brains and our bodies are constantly at DEFCON-1, telling us to abort mission and run away and get somewhere safe – how do we live as God’s people with compassion and hope, both for ourselves and for others?
We start with “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Too often, I think we treat the Beatitudes as a checklist of things we should be, rather than the blessings they truly are.
These people are blessed not because they’re working harder or doing more or just naturally better than the rest of us – but because God is with them in a different way than those who are confident, self-assured, and independent.
The depressed, the anxious, the grieving – those folks know they’re not getting through the day without some help. In fact, most of the Psalms come from these people – the ones who are desperate, who are striving and seeking after God, the ones who want to rage at the world but manage to reign themselves in and offer mercy and open hands instead.
The beatitudes aren’t another do-better list. This is about how God meets us in the world – how we find God (or, rather, how God finds us) in these moments.
No matter where you go in the gospels, when Jesus encounters someone who is struggling, who is wrestling, who faces barriers or exclusion, he always leads with compassion. Not with advice, not with a comprehensive plan, and never with derision or condescension – but with compassion.
Jesus knew he had the power to raise Lazarus from the dead, but he still wept with Mary and Martha while they grieved.
Anxiety disorders and related mental illness are complex and difficult to manage, even with the best care. Sometimes, they’re flat-out illogical. But as I’ve said I think every week since we began this series, we cannot fix people – we can just love them, exactly how we find them.
Compassion will look different in every circumstance: rolling with abrupt changes in plans, helping someone breathe through a panic attack, or holding someone’s hand and praying for peace and courage in a stressful moment.
But by far the best thing you can do is learn. In a calm moment, when things are good, learn more about the individual person you care about and how they react when their anxiety spikes. What will help them, and what will make things worse? Do they have favorite coping skills that you can walk them through? Are there things stashed in their car or their bag that you can use to help them?
It’s just like caring for someone with a medical condition – where do you keep your epi-pen or your glucose tablets? Is there someone I should call if this thing happens? How will I know the difference between something you can handle and something that requires a trip to the ER?
Each of us will always have some anxiety in our bucket. That’s what keeps us alive. But we don’t have to carry it alone.
When Jesus first went into the countryside, proclaiming the good news, he said: “the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
But think about it: what (or who) was nearest to them in that moment?
Jesus. The kingdom of God is Jesus’ presence with us.
It puts a slightly different spin on our refrain today, doesn’t it?
are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.