Sunday, August 08, 2010

More Mindfulness, Less Anxiety

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 8, 2010

Year C, Proper 14: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
(Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16)
Luke 12:32-40

More Mindfulness, Less Anxiety

I’ve been here just under three years, so now that we’ve gotten to know each other, I’ll admit that by nature I’m a pretty anxious person. I tend to worry about all sorts of things. Some of you know that last year Sue and I went through the ordeal of selling our house in Jersey City. In reality we hit some stumbling blocks, but as these things go, it was a fairly quick sale. In my mind, though, anxiety was in control. I had convinced myself that we would never be free of this house – that this house would haunt us for the rest of our lives. I imagined a newspaper article with the headline, “Couple Tries to Sell House for 30 Years.” For months I had trouble focusing on anything else and I know at least one person was praying for me.

Anxiety. The house was just a thing. Even if we didn’t sell it as quickly as we’d like, Sue and I were able to pay our bills. We had great people helping us. And eventually all houses, including ours, get sold. But still for a while I was nearly consumed by anxiety.

I was very much aware of my anxious nature when I began the ordination process nearly ten years ago. Ironically, one of the things that made me anxious was the idea that priests are supposed to provide a non-anxious presence. Yes, I was anxious about being non-anxious!

This was an especially big issue the summer I did what’s called Clinical Pastoral Education at Christ Hospital in Jersey City. In our training we were reminded that as chaplains we had the awesome responsibility and privilege of being signs of God’s presence with people who were frightened by their own illness or injury – or worried about someone they loved. Just thinking about that made me more anxious.

So, when I went into hospital rooms I worked very hard at projecting a non-anxious presence, all while my anxiety was causing my stomach to churn. But, with experience, I became pretty good at projecting – OK, faking - a non-anxious presence. In fact, I became too good at it.

After describing several hospital room visits, in which I said very little and maintained what I hoped was a pleasant, non-anxious expression on my face, my supervisor became concerned. She realized that I had been so focused on me, on being a non-anxious presence that I wasn’t expressing to these suffering people that I understood at least in part the pain, fear, anger, confusion and, yes, anxiety, they were feeling. These suffering people weren’t sure that I really got it.

I was so busy paying attention to what was going on inside me and what I was projecting to others, that I wasn’t being mindful of what was happening in those hospital rooms. My efforts to hide anxiety prevented me from offering compassion.
My supervisor told me that sometimes the best pastoral care we can give is saying to a suffering person, “This is really terrible.” Sometimes, depending on the person, more colorful language is called for. And after many experiences I’ve come to know that it’s true – suffering people want to know that the people around them understand that they’re going through something horrible. Suffering people want to know that we’re paying attention to them – not to how their suffering is making us feel. We have to recognize and acknowledge the anxiety we feel. Once that’s out of the way, it’s possible to offer real compassion and comfort.

The truth is, though, often we just get stuck at anxiety – which never produces anything positive. Our house didn’t sell any faster or for a higher price because of all my worrying. My anxiety just made me miserable, made the lives of those around me not so much fun, and distracted me from all the ways that God was at work in the world.

So, it should be no surprise that many, if not all, religious traditions call us to mindfulness. When we’re mindful we focus on what’s most important. When we’re mindful we remember God’s love and all the many gifts we receive every day. We remember what a gift it is to just be alive, to breathe, to love and to be loved. And sure enough, when we’re mindful anxiety seems to fade at least a bit, and we become more loving and peaceful people.

More mindfulness, less anxiety.

There’s no doubt we live in a time of great anxiety. It’s easy to be anxious. It’s hard to be mindful. We all know the economy continues to sputter. The war in Iraq has cost us precious blood and many billions of dollars and yet yielded less than satisfactory results. Meanwhile in Afghanistan we’re faced with the dreaded and familiar problem of not knowing who’s an ally and who’s an enemy. Here at home there’s great concern about the influx of undocumented immigrants, while at the same time we depend on them to harvest our food, clean our homes, mow our lawns, and much more. And this hot summer may just be a taste of what’s to come if the earth continues to heat up, in part because of the massive amounts of carbon we spew into the atmosphere.

These are all real issues. And many of us face our own personal challenges and worries. The question for us is, do we get stuck at anxiety? Do we expend vast amounts of energy worrying or getting angry or casting blame? If we get stuck at anxiety we never get anywhere – we just make ourselves miserable, make the people around us miserable, and get distracted from all the ways that God is at work in the world.

In the gospel, Jesus warns us about anxiety. In the section of the Gospel of Luke just before what we heard today, we have Jesus’ famous words about anxiety, or worry:

“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

Jesus knows that anxiety gets us nowhere. As he says in today’s lesson, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Jesus says don’t be anxious. Instead, Jesus calls us to be mindful.

More mindfulness, less anxiety.

After reassuring us of God’s love and generosity, Jesus says, “sell your possessions, and give alms.” This is always difficult to talk about, because, of course, there are some things we need to live our lives and to take care of our families. But, speaking as someone who is moving next week, and as someone who has tried over these past three years not to accumulate possessions, man, we have a lot of stuff. All that stuff can be a big source of anxiety. We could live quite well on so much less. We could use that money for the good of those who have far, far less than we do. Today’s gospel is a call to mindfulness. We live better than just about anyone else on the planet.

Then there’s one of Jesus’ famous lines, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Again, Jesus calls us to mindfulness. From time to time we should stop and pray and think. What do we really treasure? What’s most important to us? Is it our stuff? Is it the size of our bank accounts? Is it our address? Is it our level of education? Is it our appearance? Is it our status at work or in the community?

What do we really treasure? What’s most important to us? Is it our families and friends? Is it our church? Is it the opportunity to offer service to others?
Does how we live our lives, the choices we make, reflect what we treasure? Does how we live our lives reflect what’s most important to us?

Finally Luke quotes Jesus looking ahead to the end and calling us to be mindful, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Jesus gives us a sense of urgency. There’s no time to waste. And, the truth is, if we live mindfully, then we we’re less likely to put off what’s most important. We’re less likely to say I’ll love later when I have more time. If we live mindfully, we’re less likely to say, maybe next year I’ll volunteer, maybe next year I’ll give a little more. If we live mindfully, we’re less likely to say, next time I move I’ll simplify my life.

Part of being mindful is recognizing that we don’t know how much time we have. So, now’s the time to acknowledge our anxiety. Yes, there are big problems in the world and many of us face big personal challenges. Yet, when we’re mindful, when we pay attention, we remember the many gifts we’ve been given, we can be more compassionate to the suffering of others, and we find that at least some of our anxiety fades.

More mindfulness, less anxiety.