Years ago, when I was a junior in high school, a good friend encouraged me to take part in a retreat called T.E.C. (Teens Encounter Christ). At the time, I had heard that T.E.C. was an extraordinary faith-building experience for teenagers across the Christian denominational spectrum (I was a Lutheran at the time). Mind you, I was a little skeptical about spending a weekend with strangers in a church thirty miles from home, but I trusted my friend’s judgement. So I went.
And it was extraordinary.
To my utter surprise, that one full weekend with teenagers and group leaders singing and praying, confiding and growing in faith was unlike any experience I had gone through in my life up to that point. There was an unembarrassed sense of openness about faith, a willingness to share doubts and insecurities, and an unparalleled devotion of volunteers who (from behind the scenes) took such pains to make each of us feel loved and appreciated that it exemplified a touch of God’s Grace. Having just recently emerged from the still warm embers of my parents’ divorce, T.E.C. gave me a much needed (and at times, sadly obscured) sense of Christ’s love. In truth, to this very day, I still feel the warmth of my T.E.C. experience.
But then the weekend ended.
And I remember the sense of depression, almost a type of “re-entry blues”, that followed. How does one experience the heights of such glorious and penetrating Christian fellowship only to descend to the troubling realities of adolescent life? I remember eating lunch with my dad the day T.E.C. was over. I was struggling with the sense of angst about the way life is as opposed to the way life is supposed to be. And that’s when he said it and I’ll never forget it.
Life is in the trenches, Tod.
What? What does that mean?
At the time, I don’t think I fully appreciated the wisdom wrapped up in that short, pithy phrase. But I think I am starting to.
Our lives are full of anxiety. It is simply a part of life. Now, that doesn’t mean it has to be immobilizing panic or despairing angst, but all of us – to one degree or another – live with a waxing and waning din of anxiety and stress. We need to get up when the alarm goes off and avoid staying up too late. During the day we must meet this deadline, make that call, pay this bill, commit to that decision, sustain that relationship, watch out for this pitfall, correct that mistake, set goals for today and tomorrow and next year, see those goals through, balance our faith, our family, our fitness, and our career, try to pack those ten pounds into that five pound can. You can do it. You can do it. You can do it.
This is life. Some days we do it reasonably well. And other days we are miserable at it.
But for good or ill, life and its commitments carry with it some degree of anxiety.
This is life in the trenches. Like the soldiers in World War I France, we are running about in the muck of earthen trenches, carrying our rifle, smoking a cigarette, eating a little, sleeping a little, shooting a little, ducking for cover, praying and then thanking God we are still alive. A touch of fear, a dash of exhilaration, a smidgen of worry.
Anxiety is just a part of being alive.
But here is the thing: God speaks to us about anxiety over and over and over again.
How many times in the Bible do God or his messengers say to a cowering man or woman, “Be not afraid”? How often does Christ look into the ashamed eyes of an adulteress, the desperate eyes of a worried parent, the lonely eyes of a leper, the uncertain eyes of a disciple and see anxiety? Do we really think that God doesn’t understand how we tick? We worry about how we look, how we dress, whether we are saving enough money to support ourselves and our family. God knows.
[Jesus] said to [his] disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your life-span? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest? Notice how the flowers grow. They do not toil or spin. But I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass in the field that grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? As for you, do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not worry anymore. All the nations of the world seek for these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these other things will be given you besides. Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:22-32)
We worry because we have so much to get done in so little time. We are distracted. We know there is a greater Truth, an enduring Peace awaiting us, but in the midst of our never-ending to-do lists, we never feel we will get there (and we may even resent those who are getting there ahead of us). God understands.
As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
We worry because we and our family members age. We encounter illness and death. And though we are offered assurances, illness and death are still places of uncertainty, chasms of the unknown. God reassures.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where [I] am going you know the way.” (John 14:1-4)
From Jeremiah to Isaiah, from Mary to Peter, God is saying to us, I understand that you are worried, but you don’t have to be. You don’t know the end of the story, but I do. And it is glorious. It is perfect. It is beautiful. And it is yours. When Martha grumbled about her sister Mary sitting attentively before Jesus or when Peter sank into the sea as he took his eyes off of Christ, the same message was given to them (and is given to us this very day). Why did you look away? There is only one thing necessary. Unum necessarium.
Every day God is trying to remind us of an indispensable Truth through Scripture or one of the thousand small ways he vies for our attention (though we are too busy or anxious to notice). That Truth is that God knows us, he loves us and he will be with us to the end of the age.
Once, Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar brilliantly observed,
When one surveys even from a distance how often and how openly Sacred Scripture speaks of fear and anxiety, an initial conclusion presents itself: the Word of God is not afraid of fear or anxiety.
Life is in the trenches. ‘Tis true. Anxiety, to some degree, is a part of our existence. But let us take heart and find God’s inextinguishable assurance. There is only one thing necessary.
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