Monday, January 14, 2019

Anxiety Makes the World Go Round

In week 2 of our sermon series "Mark my word", our Senior Minister, Didi Bacon, issued a challenge to us to "Prepare our Hearts" by "looking inside". This was a challenge to be Christ-like in our prayer lives as seen in the Gospels:
Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. - Luke 5:15-16
After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone. - Matthew 14:23
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. - Mark 1:35

Be Quiet - Be Open - Be Attentive

The plague of our culture was described in 6 "D's". By failing to prepare our hearts, finding our inward center and asking God to overflow our souls with his power, we leave ourselves in the grasp of our animalistic impulses of "Fight or Flight".

Now... I need to pause right here for some disclaimers. I have a degree in visual communication design... I am not a licensed psychologist or any other sort of educated or well-informed medical professional. I took a single counseling class while working on my unfinished master's degree, so much of the following is 100% speculative and purely opinion based. Read at your own risk.

Before I rant, The below video influenced much of my thoughts. You should definitely check it out. If you have questions about brain chemistry and mental health's role in our expanding post-millennial social-scape, this is a great introduction to those topics.

If you need a more brief and humorous introduction, I've got your back:

Panic & Anxiety... What's the Freaking Deal!

The more time I spend on social media, the more I see the growing struggle of my friends against the presence of anxiety.

As Simon Sinek deduced in the first video above, we have a component of our brain chemistry called Cortisol. The main job of cortisol is to places our physical body in a physical posture to react to "Fight or Flight" impulses. When something threatens us, whether it be an external or internal force, we are designed to fight fire with fire - we meet stress head-on with a double-fisted dose of stress... 

look familiar 90's kids...

Our rage monster is designed to come out to unlock our "super-powers". This is all great when we were fighting for our survival at every turn in the wilderness, but we choose this whole "civilized" social construct thingy that throws the proverbial wet blanket on everything...

Combined with adrenalin, cortisol gives us that temporary boost to either meet our stress head on and conquer it or run like hell and forever avoid the issue. But we really can't do either of those two things today, can we? If you start throwing punches in the air (or worse yet, someone else) you will quickly find yourself either in a padded room or behind bars. If we literally take off and run away from conflict, we are going to deal with similar outcomes, maybe not as severe, but shin splints can be a real downer.

Instead, we settle for passive-aggression. We fight in our heads. We run in our heads. We vent, we medicate, we indulge in other impulsive decisions to try and just get rid of this knot of stress in the back of our necks that have been tap-dancing on our brain stem for eternity.

As Simon points out, as well as the Wikipedia section, cortisol is very easy to get rid of. Do something physical. Go for a run, dance, laugh... DO SOMETHING! Cortisol is metabolized efficiently with a healthy dose of physical activity, which makes sense because that is exactly what it prepares us for. If you have ever been in a fist fight, wrestling match, foot race, or really any sort of physically competitive event, you know what it is like to "leave it all on the field". That place of internal fulfillment where you know you "got it all out of your system". You can walk away feeling positive without the need to keep running through the mental brick wall.

Life doesn't give us very many opportunities to "get it all out of your system". When you are depressed or riddled with anxiety, it's not like you are scrambling for your gym bag with overwhelming excitement to be seen in spandex. We are much more likely to go lay in our bed, move as little as possible, binge-watch a TV show that's sole purpose is to constantly keep us hooked into a web of character and plot development using additional anxiety triggers. That sounds like a cocktail designed for absolute failure.

So what do we do?

When we can't fight, and we can't run, what do we do? If we choose to sit on that mental fence, we will just continue to be bombarded by that cortisol that ain't going nowhere until we act on its impulsive triggers.

The "radical middle" is very different than the "passive middle". The radical middle surrenders that fight to a force that can fight. The radical middle surrenders the race to a force that can run. You choose to step to the side and train your impulses to stop reacting to every environmental stimulant, pause, take a breath, look deep down inside of your soul, identify God's provision and his presence within you, breathe, look up, get a clear vision for who you are, where you belong, and what you are called to do, and then go do it. You must choose to respond and not fall prey to the need to react.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. 
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. - Colossians 3:1-17
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
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. ... And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. - Ephesians 6:13 & 18
If you've read this far and are now feeling "Jesus-Juked" like "Come on bro, you got me going with some solid and relatable material and then you went and 'spiritualized' everything with blanket scriptures that are designed to just have me put everything in faith's hands..." trust me, I hear you.

Like I said, I'm not a professional, and it would begin to enter dangerous ground for me to begin handing out instructions for how to handle your anxiety. But I can tell you what has helped me. By learning that every battle that I'm presented with doesn't need to be my battle, I have been able to witness countless relationships being saved that I would have inevitably burnt to the ground. It's slightly easier to shrug off the stress and find the positive growth opportunity from my stressful environments. But most importantly, by seeking, and reaching out for more information, I have a deeper understanding of who I am, and so I find myself just a little bit less likely to force myself on someone else and demand that they understand me and validate my unstable ego.

If you are in a mental war, and you are not prepared, and you don't have proper armor on, you are going to be a constant mess. If this is how you feel, please reach out to someone that can stand in your blind spots and help you take the next step to find rest in a place of safety - but you can't stay there, it's a place to get equipped and get prepared, the fight won't disappear, you have to meet it head-on, but at least you can be prepared and outlast it, go the distance, Rocky!

The prayer attributed to Saint Francis feels like the perfect recipe for those who find themselves gripped with anxiety, and so, I will leave you with my favorite rendition:

"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

"O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."

Monday, January 7, 2019

What is Value?

This Sunday we launched into a new sermon series titled "Mark my word." To me, it echoes the words of an old western gunfighter, possibly Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. 

When all of your value is measured by the weight and promise of your word, you make sure to say it slow and serious.

God made a promise to us. He spoke the word, and he told us to hold him to it. He would not go back on his word. It was a done deal. That promise was a rescue plan. The word he spoke was the name of his son Jesus, who gave his life so that we may be reunited with God. The power that resurrected Jesus is the power that lives within us, and that same word echoes within every beat of our hearts. Those echoes declare our promise of eternal life. It's mind-blowing to think it through, but it's also easy to miss in the hectic pace of our daily lives.

In the first week, we took a look at Paul's letter to the Philippians:
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. 
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
Philippians 3:7-16 

Tim Peace, Mount Carmel Christian Church's Teaching Minister (and my friend), concluded in his message that Paul's ONE WORD that served as his focal lens was "valued." This got me thinking...

What is "value"? How do we really measure this complex and abstract, yet simple and concrete concept?

Economically, the value of something is controlled by the principle of "Supply and Demand."
  • If supply is down and demand is down - value is dead - think about that pair of pea green bell polyester pants in your grandpa's closet. Both the producer and consumer suffer greatly.
  • If supply is up and demand is down - value is down, this is the dream scenario for a communistic economy. As history as revealed, this is very complicated to retain a sense of stability and ultimately fails to deliver a healthy quality of life. Producers suffer without competition, and their product becomes valueless. Consumers grow complacent with low standards and technological advancements cease.
  • If supply is down and demand is up - value is up, this is the sweet spot of a capitalistic economy. As long as checks and balances are followed so as not to create monopolies and price gouging, a healthy society can practice fair trade where the majority of the population can thrive. In the end, the producer thrives above the consumer.
  • If supply is up and demand is up - you have abundant life. This is the perfect scenario where both the producers and consumers are able to thrive. The only illusion of this reality is what is painted for us of the Kingdom of Heaven, where all of our needs will be met in abundance, yet no price will need to be paid.
These principles guide the attribution of value to material goods. As a society, we are prone to using these same principles to assess our own value or the values of others. Materialism is dangerous and destructive. If we conclude that our value comes from the collection of external forces, we are locked into a storm of variables that are outside of our control. Your value ends up under the control of the marketers and social influencers of a constantly changing social narrative.
The value of human life is summed up in the three big questions in life:

  • Who am I? (Identity)
  • What is my Purpose?
  • Where do I Belong?

In math terms: V = I + P + B

As a Christ follower, we are asked to answer all of these big worldview questions with the name of Jesus - God's One Word (John 1:1 - In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.)

Our Identity is in Christ
Galatians 2:20 - I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Our Purpose is in Christ
Ephesians 2:10 - For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

John 6:29 - Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Matthew 28:18-20 - Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Our Belonging is in Christ
Romans 12:4-5 - For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ, we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.


So taking this all into perspective, I found myself challenged on what my one word for 2019 would be. In the last two years, I chose the word "Listen". I wanted to grow in my ability to listen to others and listen inwardly to myself, my chaotic thoughts before they came spewing out of my mouth impulsively, and to the convictions of my faith made alive by the Holy Spirit.

For 2019, I have chosen the word "Response". It is two-fold. Having put the initial work towards growing my listening skills, I feel like I am ready to begin responding. This takes careful attention to details and discipline to not become reactive. Responding waits, it calculates, it counts the cost of what is to be said and promised and then it delivers it once in a single, slow, and purposeful way. I have the bad habit of saying the first thing that comes to my mind the second it hits my brain. The first time I listen to my thoughts is when they are already hanging out there in the open air. If I hear something that needs to be refined or reiterated, my impulsive action is to repeat myself with added clarity or emphasis, something that I previously found exciting, invigorating, and "deep". I later found out through the listening processes to those whom I hold close to me, that this process is exhausting, potentially arrogant, possibly boring, and often confusing, as I come across as trying to convince myself of what I am saying more than the person I am speaking to. By choosing to wait, weight the cost of my words, and then respond, my goal is to grow in both respects for myself and respect for others. I don't want to be the immature "know it all" or the person who has to fill the awkward silence. I want to be like Jesus and I want my words to be loaded with value.

I also want to grow in Responsibility. I want to take ownership of my faults, and by avoiding the temptation to react, I want to become action oriented with a precalculated plan to overcome my faults and to aid and equip others to also overcome my lack of communication and faulted actions. By not allowing myself to point blame at anyone else but myself, my goal is to grow in respect for myself and for others.

Love has never been an issue for me. I feel loved by a lot of people. I don't really struggle with loving myself and ultimately, it is very easy for me to love God and feel loved by God.

Respect is hard for me. I have never had a lot of respect for myself. I masked that weakness with a lot of confidence. I am a doer. I am very confident in my ability to do stuff. I am very confident in my ability to earn the affection of others by doing stuff for them. I thrive off of this exchange of service for affirmation. The difficulty is that confidence does not guarantee respect. I often find myself reflecting on times where I overextend myself as a people pleaser and I sell myself short. I lower my value (my time and talents) to make sure I am selected to serve in the role that I desire. I become aware that I have done this without any competition or need to have done so. I allow bitterness to fester deep within me when I continue to struggle to manage my resources and properly value my relationships that suffer because of my reduced presence, and I suffer from that ongoing spiral.

None of that can happen without a foundation of respect. Love is given freely as a gift. Respect is earned through sacrificial service. It's time to get to work.