Rx For Anxiety

Rx For Anxiety

ANXIETY, I am not immune to it. I doubt you are either, especially now in coronavirus times. Yet something Jesus said just before his crucifixion reminds me that we have a choice about our anxieties.

The Apostle John described the scene for us in chapters thirteen and fourteen of his gospel. Jesus, already in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, was in the upper room with his closest followers, his twelve, hand-picked men. There was a price on his head. He washed their feet, shared the bread and the cup, and, most notably, predicts his betrayal. All were aghast. All were frightened. They were well aware of the threat they were under, the risks they were running by being in Jerusalem. Their anxiety was intense.

Into this fractious moment, Jesus spoke some of his most familiar words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1). Then he repeated them near the end of his talk, just before they left the upper room, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27).

The first three words of each line tell us something about ourselves that can be hard to believe: We have a choice about our anxieties. Jesus’ two “Do not let(s)…” make an emphatic statement about our ability to choose fear or faith.

The physiological fact is that we can worry ourselves sick.

Psychiatrists have reliable evidence that the more we worry, the more we fixate on some fearful thing over which we have no control, the more likely we are to push our brain chemistry out of balance. Once the neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, nor-epinephrine and, others get off-kilter, it can be tough to return them to an even keel. In some cases, medications are necessary to help restore the balance. But for most of us, medicine is a temporary fix. If we don’t address the underlying habit of fear in the first place, the imbalance is likely to reoccur.

Jesus has a prescription for preventing such brain disorders. “Do not let” it happen. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust God (instead). Trust me (instead).” Do not choose to worry, and it cannot enslave your mind. Choose to trust God, and he will set it free.

Easier said than done? Yes, certainly. But it is possible. Let me offer a couple of practical steps to help. Call it Rx for Anxiety.

First, it may be necessary to confess that we’ve allowed the source of our worry (can you say coronavirus?) to become more powerful than God, more important to our wellbeing than Christ. That’s idolatry. Only confession and repentance can defeat it. “Father, thing A or thing B is occupying front and center in my life. That’s your place. I now repent of that and confess that you are God and nothing else. I confess that I am not in control.”

Second, remembering that physical expressions of worship often help us deal with difficult emotions, take a step of faith. Take that thing over which you have no control (which includes most of life, does it not?), write it down on a piece of paper, and in the act of worship offer it up to God. Then set it on fire.

Some things are more challenging to offer up like this than others. Some may require a daily offering for a while. But make it a habit with all of your worries, and peace will become your companion.

We have a choice about what to do with our anxieties. As you think about all that Christ accomplished for us during his Passion this week, choose trust.

THE PLOW: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

THE PLOW: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Every summer, we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden-fresh fruits and vegetables. I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But then I ate an Abbott tomato. I thought I knew what sweet was, but then I tasted a Turbeville, VA cantaloupe.

One such garden was across the street from our house. But none of its fruit would’ve been possible without Mr. Rice from down the street. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with the thing every garden needs: the plow.

The plow is hard and sharp. It rips through weeds, punctures the hard surface, and breaks up the clotted dirt. The plow prepares the ground for the beginning of life-giving things.

The spiritual life has a parallel in the plow: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in ‘putting off the old life’ and ‘putting on the new.’ Nothing happens without it.

Today is Ash Wednesday when some Christians mark their heads with an ashen cross to begin the season of Lent, a concentrated period of personal repentance before Easter. That’s good if it helps. Like an unused plow in an abandoned field, repentance has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture. But repentance is a spiritual discipline that requires regular practice if it’s to do us any good.

Nehemiah shows us how to do it.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins…we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the toughest part of the ground, the hardened surface of self. We come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t my environment, it wasn’t my job, it wasn’t my family, I did something wrong, and I’m responsible for it.”

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside, I look fine. On the inside, my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands… you gave to Moses.”

Finally, Nehemiah confessed to group sins. He used the plural pronoun, “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves responsible for what our culture is doing. But when we fail to speak up for the defenseless unborn, are we not responsible? When we fail to care for the poor, are we not neglecting our responsibilities?

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility, putting everything out on the table between God and us. That is essential if we want a response.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away, grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with Mr. Rice about that. He said, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time, there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are less than five.”

When I observe our culture and see the poison it produces, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

SEVEN TESTS OF TRUE FAITH

Do you ever wake up in the morning and not feel like a Christian? Wait, let me re-phrase that. Do you ever wake up and, even after your first cup of coffee, not feel like a real believer? What do we do with that?

And how about those people who attended church and sang the songs and said the prayers and served the community but whose life choices now seem totally out of sync with biblical ethics? What do we do with that? How do we come to grips with our fickle feelings and feckless friends when it comes to spiritual things? How do we know if we or anyone else is truly in the faith?

It is not a new question.

The Apostle John answered similar questions in his first letter to the churches. He gives us seven tests of faith that help us distinguish between true and false believers. They also comfort and confirm us on those days we doubt our salvation when our emotions are wiggly, and our faith is weak.

The overarching test, the one that provides the foundation and frame for the whole letter, is the Christological, or the “Christ” test. We see it in 1:3; 2:22; 4:2-3 and 5:7-12, among others. It maintains that Jesus Christ is God’s Son in the flesh who lived a real earthly life, died for our sins and rose from the dead, ascended into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, and will return to rule one day. If we do not believe that, we are not “in him.”

This belief is no mere intellectual assent or culturally acceptable confession. Ask just about anyone on the street if he believes in Jesus and, he will say yes. (OK, ask it in the South. I can’t vouch for other parts of the country). Belief, in the New Testament, means the complete acceptance of and compliance with Jesus’s claim to be Messiah, the Son of God, the only atonement for our sins and, the only hope of eternal life. It means he has our ultimate loyalties.

But as Jesus taught in the parable of the wheat and the tares, and as we see in the lives of Judas and other people in Scripture, it is possible to fake it. That’s why John provided six other tests.

  1. The light test, 1Jn.1:5-7. True faith lives in truth or with biblical ethics. Lives characterized by wickedness and error are in the darkness. Lives of holiness and truth are in the light.
  2. The humility test, 1Jn 1:8-10. True faith practices humility about personal sin. If we recognize and confess our sinfulness, he cleanses and purifies us. If not, “we make him out to be a liar.”
  3. The obedience test, 1Jn. 2:3-6. True faith obeys. If our lives are characterized by obedience to his commands, we “know we are in him.” If we say we are his, but our lives are characterized by disobedience to his way, we are lying to ourselves and everybody else.
  4. The love test, 1Jn. 2:9-11. True faith lives in love. Lives characterized by love for others, including those outside the faith, are in the light. If not, we remain in darkness.
  5. The worldliness test, 1Jn. 2:15-17. True faith loves the things of God. Covetousness, lust, and boastful pride belong to the world.
  6. And finally, the persistence test, 1 John 2:19-25. If we depart from the faith as it was handed down by the Apostles, we do not have the Father or the Son. But if we persist in that faith, we remain in him (v.24).

18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.[1]

Feelings will lie to us, and friends will sometimes forsake the way. But God’s word is true, and you can count on it.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (1 Jn 3:18–20). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

PREPARING TO LEAD

He was a man of great talent and vision who had served the Church well for many years. Then he became a best-selling author. Encouraged by his success, he decided that he knew how to solve the problems of Africa. He moved his entire family there with a grand vision. Three years later, he was back in the States, retired from active ministry, his dream dead in the African desert. He had failed to plan for the realities ahead, counting instead on his passion, vision, and skill for success.

I was an admirer. Having learned a great deal from his books and conferences, I was surprised he would make that kind of mistake. The reason I was surprised was Dr. John Harbaugh.

Dr. Harbaugh was one of the best professors at the Georgia State University College of Business Administration in the 1980’s. Every class he offered that fit my schedule, I took. He’d spent 30 years in executive management for Fortune 500 firms and knew his stuff. The greatest lesson I learned from him was: Leaders don’t presume they prepare.

About twenty-five years later, in a study through the Old Testament, I learned that Nehemiah knew this long before Dr. Harbaugh.[1] Nehemiah had one shot at his presentation to King Artaxerxes to authorize his mission to rebuild the walls in Jerusalem. He had to get he would need, convince Artaxerxes that this wasn’t some half-cocked idea, in one brief conversation.

The Small Business Administration states that 30% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 50% during the first five years and, 66% during the first 10. Most new businesses don’t make it. The reason? Incomplete preparation, unclear goals, unrealistic objectives.

Nehemiah had a clear goal, rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He presented a complete plan, specific objectives to meet that goal. He gave the king the time frame, listed the authorizations he would need, and secured the logistical support all in one brief meeting.

In the late 1940s, Billy Graham saw a need for something that would unify, equip, and represent evangelicals in the intellectual arena. He began praying and listening to pastors, professors, business leaders, and mentors. Then one night, in 1953, he woke with an idea racing through his mind. “Trying not to disturb Ruth, I slipped out of bed and into my study to write. A couple of hours later, the concept of a new magazine was complete. I thought its name should be Christianity Today. I worked out descriptions of the various departments, editorial policies, even an estimated budget. I wrote everything I could think of, both about the magazine’s organization and about its purpose.”[2] Christianity Today is now the most widely read and respected religious magazine in the world. Billy reviewed the first copy in 1956. From dream to plan to reality took six years.

There is such a thing as planning too much and depending on plans rather than God. But for the most part, failing to plan is planning to fail. Leaders don’t presume they prepare. They do their homework, cover all the bases possible, then move out in faith.

[1] See Nehemiah 2:1-9

[2] Harold Myra and Bruce Shelley; The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham; pg. 209-210.

BETTER THAN JINGLE BELLS

BETTER THAN JINGLE BELLS

In Ready or Not: The Return of Christmas, Maureen Jais-Mick wrote: “Society never actually wanted the Incarnation. Emmanuel, God-with-Us, does not sell computer games or cologne. Society wanted the cute stuff–rustic stable, adoring shepherds, fluffy sheep, cows, donkey, holy family, infant Jesus, gift-bearing kings, stars, angels, St. Nicholas, reindeer, fir trees, holly, and presents. The pagan stuff they will retain–even if they do dye the trees powder blue and decorate them with miniature hanging appliances and Disney ornaments…The marketplace will also retain some of the traditional hymnody, but in arrangements that remove them from the realm of traditional worship. Ancient chants are popular, too. They sound religious and profound and–best of all–nobody understands Latin, so no shoppers are offended.”[1]

I was reflecting on these things as I meditated on Mary’s song, recorded for us in Luke 1:46-55. I wondered, what would it be like if a young woman stood at the rail above Santa’s house at the mall and began singing, in a pure, clear voice, this song? What if the whole sound system went quiet right after Jingle Bell Rock and one voice stood out above all the rest with this little hymn?

I think stunned silence would follow. A few would lock on and quietly enjoy her song. But most would look away uncomfortably, shuffle their feet, or go on shopping because the singer would be doing something foreign to us. She wouldn’t be performing or entertaining. She would be worshiping. And true worship at Christmas is about as foreign to us as Elmer Fudd at Easter.

Christmas is thing centered. Worship is God-centered. Things leave hearts empty. God fills hearts with peace, and joy, and confidence. Worship is the thing we’re missing at Christmas. The lack of worship – personal worship – is what is leaving us so empty.   

Mary’s heart was full of God. Her song made eight references to the activity of God in her life and the life of Israel. God filled her mind, her heart, and her mouth.  That is worship. And that kind of worship does not come about by accident. Worship that enters the presence of God is worship that comes from a life consumed with his greatness.

Getting there requires a disciplined focus on God. But that kind of focus is difficult for 21st century Americans. We have too many distractions. Too many screens, songs, and sugary treats. Not enough silence, serious reflection, and self-denial. Those things may sound like Christmas downers, but they characterized Mary’s life and made her song possible. It is not unlike landing an airplane or sinking a difficult putt. Stay focused, and it’s a thing of beauty. Get distracted, and it gets ugly.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Jingle Bell Rock as well as anyone. But worship that arrives in the presence of God is the result of a mind that has made a habit of focusing on God – his goodness, his holiness, his power, his mercy, and deeds – to the exclusion of everything else. When you learn to sing Mary’s song, nothing else will quite measure up.

[1]    — (Cresset, Dec. 1995 ).  Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 14.

 

PRONE TO PONDER

PRONE TO PONDER

I am prone to ponder more than most men. Most of my sex—gender is sophistry I prefer not to use—are action-oriented, more likely to take up a task than contemplate its meaning. I’m just bent a little different. It’s probably a good thing, as pondering is a professional necessity for preachers. And it’s one thing I have in common with the mother of Jesus, who “gathered up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”[1]

The word translated “ponder” means meditate. The literal translation is to converse or confer with someone. So, Mary had a conversation with herself about the things that happened to her.

One of the best ways to prepare for Christmas is to do what Mary did, to ponder the imponderables. Let’s do that with her.

First, there was the angelic visit. Abraham received angelic visitors, Jacob wrestled with one, Moses heard the angel speak, Joshua saw an angel, Gideon too and David, and Elijah and Isaiah and Daniel.  Samson’s mother, the wife of Manoah, saw and spoke with an angel. All these people of great fame and impact in Israel had seen an angel and heard one speak. Now, Mary, too, had seen and heard one of the flaming messengers. And his word to her had come true. It wasn’t a dream.

She pondered this. And it was good.

Then there was the angelic description of her son: “You are to give him the name Jesus.” Names mean little to us, just labels we use to identify each other. Names meant much more in ancient times. They designated the character and calling of a person. They were as much prayers and prophecies as they were labels. For you to call your son, Jesus was to make his name a form of praise and testimony. For an angel to give your son the name, Jesus was to make a prophecy about his life.

Calling someone a son of God wasn’t completely unheard of in those days. Caesar was considered divine. Pharaoh was called divine. Antiochus, who conquered Israel between the testaments, adopted the name Epiphanes—”the god who reveals himself.” But the angel called Jesus, the “son of the Most High,” who is lifted far above all gods and men. He is also the heir to David’s throne, the eternal King, Messiah. He comes to be a nursing infant in a peasant girl’s arms.

Mary pondered long, meditating on the meaning of all these things. And they were good.

Where would you least like to spend Christmas? I would not want to spend it in Syria or Sudan or Venezuela or several other war-torn and poverty-stricken places right now.  But multiply the distance between here and there by 1,000 or 1,000,000, and you will not come close to the distance Jesus traveled and the deprivation he endured to become Emmanuel. Meditate on that, and you will find it good.

Finally, the supernatural conception: Every mother knows her baby is special. We often call the whole process of birth a miracle. It is wondrous and beautiful, but it isn’t miraculous. It’s part of our nature, the system God created. In Jesus, God bypassed the system. Mary knew her baby was more than special. Her baby truly was a miracle.

C.S. Lewis wrote beautifully on the incarnation. Read and ponder. “Jesus was conceived when God took off the glove of nature and touched Mary with his naked finger. Thus, Jesus did not evolve up and out of history.”

“In the Christian story, God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He had created. But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift; he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders. Or one may think of a diver first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through the increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay, and then back up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting until suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover.”[2]

That dripping, precious thing is you, and I. Christmas is when we celebrate his coming down to us. Ponder all of that, and you will find it good.

[1] Luke 2:19

[2] The Joyful Christian, Readings from C. S. Lewis pgs. 54-55.

YOU ONLY SAW HER HANDS

YOU ONLY SAW HER HANDS

Alice Marie “Bee” Wolter, October 3, 1930 – November 14, 2019

“I’m a good ole boy and my Momma loves me, but she can’t understand why they keep showin’ my hands and not my face on TV.”

Waylon Jennings was so well known on the Country Music scene that by the time he played Good Ole Boy for the 1979 redneck sitcom, The Dukes of Hazard, everyone who heard the verse knew who was singing it. Waylon’s face never appeared, only his jeans, cowboy shirt and leather vest framing his fingers picking his signature white and black Fender Telecaster. It was an inside joke. But we understood. Waylon was already famous as an “outlaw” country singer. We didn’t need to see his face. We could recognize the sound of his guitar and that coal mine deep baritone anywhere.

About the same time that Waylon and the Duke Brothers were hitting their stride the hands of another musician of a totally different stripe began appearing regularly on television. In Touch, the television ministry of Dr. Charles Stanley began airing nationwide in the early eighties. In those days part of the signature opening sequence for the program was a shot of a pair of skilled hands caressing the ivory white keys of a black grand piano. The viewer never saw the musician’s face and very few people ever knew her name but those of us who were members of First Baptist Church of Atlanta back then didn’t need to. We recognized the hands and knew the signature sound of one of the most talented and dedicated servants to ever play a hymn. We used to sing her that verse of Waylon’s song during rehearsals just to kid her.

Her name is Alice Marie “Bee” Wolter. For twenty-two years she caressed the keys for countless rehearsals, worship services, weddings, funerals, church theatrical productions and traveling choirs as part of the ministry of First Baptist Church of Atlanta. That’s when I met her and more importantly, met her daughter who became my wife. But that doesn’t even make up half of her time in service to the King at the keyboard.

Bee began playing for the church when she was ten years old. She went on to major in organ music at Ohio State University. The week after my wife was born, she was back at the keys with the baby in nursery. She was pianist every summer for about 40 years at Camp Barakel in northern Michigan. And, as of 2016, when she played for her last church in Kennesaw, GA, she had been at her post in some church or ministry, almost every Sunday and many nights in between, for seventy-five years.

The Apostle Paul wrote the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”[1]

Watching her practice, even well up into her 70’s when she probably could have winged and gotten by, one knew that Bee took that to heart. She said she always heard the words in her head when she played, worshiping with the congregation as she gave them the tune and followed without fail the conductor’s tempo. Those of us she accompanied loved to sing when she played because she always made us look good.

So, if you ever get discouraged and wonder if anyone will ever appreciate your work for the Kingdom of God, take a little lesson from my mother-in-law Bee who went home to be with the Lord last week. Very few people on earth will ever know her name. And no one will see her face on TV. But she is enjoying her inheritance in the presence of her King.

[1] Col. 3:23-24