Monday, August 31, 2015

Do Not Worry About Your Life


Do not worry about your life.

Easier said than done, Jesus.

I think "do not worry" is the most difficult command in Scripture to follow.

I found myself half-sitting on an uncomfortably stiff mattress underneath the stark glow of the fluorescent lights of the ER. This unexpected visit was prompted by the sudden dizziness and numbness accompanying a lingering chest pain I'd been experiencing over the weekend. If you Google the signs of a heart attack--an exercise almost certain to cause personal alarm--my symptoms fit the description well enough. Except I'm 30 years old with zero history of heart anything. After hours of tests and waiting, the doctors told me what I wanted to hear: your heart is fine. A clean bill of health. Maybe some acid reflux? Take a Pepcid.

Then a nurse asked a question: Have you been stressed lately? Are you sleeping okay?

Yes. No.

I suppose in some ways I'm not as stressed as I was 9 months ago in the midst of burnout. I've experienced a significant amount of healing and joy, and a renewed sense of where God is leading our family. But this season hasn't been without its stressors. Most recently, our 5-month-old son was diagnosed with congenital heart disease soon after his birth, and this past weekend had open heart surgery to patch the holes and scrape out the extra tissue buildup in his tiny heart. He is recovering well, but the six hours during his surgery, filled with pacing and prayers and tears, were some of the most difficult and stressful of my entire life. My boy's heart was stopped and hooked up to a machine to keep him alive while skilled surgeons cut and stitched inside his chest cavity. My own chest has carried this lingering hurt--empathy pains?--and my two oldest children are under my care as my resilient and confident wife beautifully cares for our recovering son.

So, yes. I have been stressed. I have not been sleeping well. What parent of three kids, ages 6 and 3 and 5 months, is getting adequate sleep?

I am stressed. But in this stress I am learning to pray.

--

I was reading Kenneth Morefield's analysis and critique of the faith-based film industry in light of the recent release of War Room, the latest movie from the Kendricks (Facing the Giants, Fireproof). The film's thesis seems to be this: "prayer is good." Which is true. But it doesn't account for the methodology and motives behind the prayers. Much of the prayer in the film seems to be directly addressed to Satan (!) as a spiritual combative tactic, and prayer does appear to fix all the character's problems (which are minor flirtations or temptations and a somewhat strained marriage). As Morefield observes, the wife's practice of prayer for her husband "...sees him not so much as a man emboldened and encouraged through prayer but as the prize given to Elizabeth when she pulls the prayer lever." She prays in her special prayer room--a luxury most Christians, myself included, cannot afford--and gets exactly what she wants. There seems to be little suffering or waiting involved, and any sort of prolonged agonizing can be easily reduced to a montage.

I contrast this sort of prayer--self-preserving, individualistic, moralistic, easy--with the vast number of people who have been praying for our son and our family during this surgery and recovery. The prayers are genuine, communal, petitionary, and hopeful. I have been overwhelmed by the amount of people who are praying for us all over the world, and the genuine gift of social media in moments such as these. These are life-and-death prayers practiced as the community of believers comes around a family as spiritual support. This is proactive waiting, listening for God's voice in the midst of the stress, clinging to the reminder of His kingdom reality in the midst of our personal suffering. It's praying with gumption and gusto, with tears and trembling, with deep groans and sighs and wonder. There is no "war room" here because all of creation resonates with God's good presence, and I know He listens while I cry in the car or wander the hospital halls or attempt to calm my daughter during our bedtime routine or as I sip coffee in the stillness of the grey mornings.

Perhaps all prayer isn't created equally. Perhaps there are better, healthier, more life-giving and genuine ways to pray.

--

When Jesus says, "do not worry," I have to imagine his tone.

If he is commanding me with a gruff and angry "Suck it up! Be a man!" with tinges of disgust, then this is not very helpful to my situation. I don't think Jesus tells us "don't worry" in the manner of a bullying drill sergeant, trying to get us to toughen up and push down any pain or fear. This is shaming, but it often can be how we imagine God's heart towards us, always disappointed that we didn't trust Him more.

Neither is Jesus's tone a cheery, saccharine, everything-is-awesome buoyancy. This isn't the false optimism and plastic smile of that one lady--you know the one--in the church lobby on a Sunday morning. This is not high-fives and hugs Jesus, pretending that our genuine worries are better off ignored, covered up by a mask of optimism.

I hear Christ's exhortation with the tone of humble confidence. He knows we stress and worry and suffer. He experienced the same in the garden of Gethsemane and on his way to the cross. But his command of "do not worry" is likely in the same tone as "not my will, but yours be done." An act of surrender, a hopeful obedience, a determination to trust.

Do not worry. I don't think it's by mistake that these words closely follow Jesus's teachings on prayer, to pray that the kingdom would come and God's will would be done, that our daily bread would be provided as we forgive and are forgiven. I am learning that stress and worry may not completely disappear on this side of heaven, but there is genuine hope and peace to be found in the prayers of the saints.

The prayer I have been clinging to in this season of stress and hospital visits and sleepless nights is one I think every parent will find comforting. To be calmed and quieted like a child with its mother is an image that brings hope and joy in the midst of stress. To be content, to be humble, to be hopeful in the Lord--this is my prayer in moments of stress. Psalm 131, a prayer of ascents:

My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.

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