Do you remember that feeling of excitement and worry of your first day of school? It’s a long time ago for some of us, but it was the beginning of our future. Which was it for you – excitement, anxiety, or something else entirely? How did you respond? Feeling anxious often brings out some funny behaviour. Some of us talk too much, and some of us withdraw. Some don’t know where to look, while others look for a hole to climb into.
Of course that is not the only time we have felt anxious. It happens throughout our lives. In fact, most of us are anxious about something now, even as you read. Surprisingly, we tend to deal with every moment of anxiety in similar ways. If we look back on our lives we can see recurring patterns of behaviour.
Anxiety is part of our lives both as individuals, and as larger groups such as church congregations. Researchers suggest that congregations behave in ways similar to individuals and families. Each congregation has its issues that bring anxiety. And when it comes, similar recurring patterns of behaviours rise to the surface. We can’t avoid these moments of anxiety, but we can be aware of them, observe our behaviour and chose to respond rather than react. This is not as easy as it might sound; nevertheless, it is no doubt part of what it means to be the body of Christ.
A real-life example
I sense that perhaps one of the underlying issues causing anxiety for the church I am a part of, Hobart Baptist Church, is an ongoing concern that we are not all we would like to be as a church. In fact we are not all we believe we can be and we are not really sure what God wants us to be in the future.
Hobart Baptist has an amazing history going back 125 years at our site in Elizabeth Street. What is more, we can trace a link back to the first Baptist Church in Australia in Harrington Street. Over the years our building has been filled with community, business and political leaders, including state and federal ministers, even hosting a State Funeral in 1963.
Such a history can be a burden to carry, particularly when attendances are dwindling and budgets are difficult to meet. Given this reality it is not an exaggeration to suggest that a low level anxiety simmers below the surface of our congregation. Most of the time we hold it in check, but now and again it flairs up and it is not a pretty sight.
But we don’t have to succumb to this anxiety. We can take a deep breath, look towards the future and not react to our anxiety. Anglican bishop Jim Kelsey once wrote:
“This is something I have found to be true without exception: that when we, any of us, focus on things in our lives that are passing away, we get scared, we get anxious, we get depressed, we lose hope; and when we focus on things that are being birthed and are coming newly into creation, we get excited, we get imaginative, we get optimistic, we feel drawn closer to one another, we feel as if we have meaning and purpose in this life, and we have joy. . . . We are given change as an ingredient in life. We can be frightened and anxious and resistant to it or we can embrace it as a tool to transform us.”
If we allow loss, grief and anxiety to get the upper hand we stop trusting each other, our vision becomes clouded and we are unable to see the present clearly. Our future can also look bleak. When anxiety rises, it is important for us to deal with it in helpful ways.
A good analogy
There is a Native American story about a grandfather who was talking to his grandson about how he felt. The grandfather said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.” The grandson asked him, “Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?” The grandfather answered: “The one I feed.”
Over the years there have been times when anxiety has tended to overtake good sense, yet over all it has been met with good grace, patience and love. If it were not so, Hobart Baptist Church would have ceased to exist. Now, as we move into a new future we could allow anxiety to rule our behaviours, or we can let go of all that we think we are supposed to be and embrace all of who God has called us to be. Doing this honours the past, but it embraces the future.
In a world full of brokenness, violence and oppression, a safe place where you can be accepted and loved makes all the difference in the world. I believe Jesus wants his church to be a place where anxiety is not allowed to rule, so that those with a broken heart can find rest and have it gently mended, and move into a better future. Peace, love and trust can prevail over anxiety, because that is what Jesus died for.
What about you? What was your first day of school like? Can you stand back and observe if this is still the way you manage anxiety? What does your future look like?
Stephen L Baxter