This is the poem Anxiety from my newly available book Creative Words. Here is the text of the poem:
Purchase Creative Words through the Friesen Press Bookstore
This is the poem Anxiety from my newly available book Creative Words. Here is the text of the poem:
Purchase Creative Words through the Friesen Press Bookstore
To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David.
1 Give ear to my prayer, O God; do not hide yourself from my supplication.
2 Attend to me, and answer me; I am troubled in my complaint. I am distraught
3 by the noise of the enemy, because of the clamor of the wicked. For they bring trouble upon me, and in anger they cherish enmity against me.
4 My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
5 Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.
6 And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest;
7 truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; Selah
8 I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.”
9 Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech; for I see violence and strife in the city.
10 Day and night they go around it on its walls, and iniquity and trouble are within it;
11 ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace.
12 It is not enemies who taunt me — I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me — I could hide from them.
13 But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend,
14 with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng.
15 Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.
16 But I call upon God, and the LORD will save me.
17 Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he will hear my voice.
18 He will redeem me unharmed from the battle that I wage, for many are arrayed against me.
19 God, who is enthroned from of old, Selah will hear, and will humble them — because they do not change, and do not fear God.
20 My companion laid hands on a friend and violated a covenant with me
21 with speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war; with words that were softer than oil, but in fact were drawn swords.
22 Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.
23 But you, O God, will cast them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days. But I will trust in you.
This Psalm is filled with unusual Hebrew words that account for the differences in wording among translations. Although individual words may present challenges the overall message of the words are clear. This is a desperate prayer for deliverance from an unsafe environment where human relationships have failed, trust has been violated, and the psalmist feels unsafe. It is a petition for God’s help. It is a cry for God to condemn those who have brought such pain. It bears witness to the psalmist grasping to their faith in God’s justice when others have proven faithless.
Many people can reflect on moments in their life when they can identify strongly with the words of this Psalm. For me, the words of this psalm take me back to a time when a dream had died, I was leading a congregation that was splitting apart due to conflict, and even home was no longer a healthy place as I attempted to deal with a betrayal by one I loved. It was a time where it felt like all the things that defined me had rejected me. My hopes for the future, my work, my place of worship, and even my family all had been impacted and the only thing I had left to hold on to was the faith that God would hear my cry in that moment, that the pain would eventually end, and that God would save me in a time when I could not save myself.
Perhaps the reason that the words in this Psalm are so difficult to translate is that the poet has to grasp for words in the midst of their pain which seem just out of reach. Deep pain seems to shatter our ability to narrate what is happening, the events become unspeakable. Yet, it is precisely this inability to speak about the trauma that one endures which can trap us within it. One of the gifts of scripture, particularly the Psalms and the prophets, is honest language which attempts to bear witness to the pain and suffering that are often a part of the life of the faithful. Being a religious person does not prevent one from experiencing conflict, betrayal, anxiety, fear, and even desiring to run away from one’s home or one’s vocation.
The Psalm begins with four verbs asking God to pay attention to the desperate prayer (Give ear, do not hide, attend, and answer) followed by a long list of troubles caused to this faithful one by the actions of the enemy/wicked. The righteous one is troubled, distraught, experiencing anguish in their heart and the terrors of death, fear, trembling. and horror overwhelm them, and their desire is to flee from the city, their home, and their responsibilities to some wilderness retreat. These early descriptions of the psalmist’s current condition seem in tension the affirmation later in the Psalm that “the LORD…will never permit the righteous to be moved” but they need to voice the full extent of their affliction before they can enter into the trust in God’s provision. J Clinton McCann highlights that many of the things the righteous one is experiencing are exactly what those opposed to God’s way and experiencing God’s judgment have experienced in the past:
“Terrors” (v.4) and “trembling” (v.5) are what the Egyptians experienced as a result of opposing God (see Exod 15: 15-16), and overwhelming horror is what Ezekiel promises as a result of God’s judgment (see Ezek 7:18). (NIB IV, 898)
Now in a world turned upside down by violence and betrayal the righteous are experiencing this at the hands of the wicked and only God can reestablish justice in this unjust environment. The psalmist, like the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 9:1-6, desires to be away from this place of betrayal and pain.
The city itself has become unsafe because of the actions of the wicked. There is no safe time and there is no safe place. Morning to night and from the walls of the city to the marketplace and even in the heart of the city the enemy cannot be avoided. The features of the city that are supposed to bring security are occupied by the enemy, commerce has been corrupted, and there is no place to go where violence, strife, and ruin have not transformed the city which was once a home into a prison for this petitioner. God must act in the midst of this injustice and the psalmist echoes God’s judgment of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 where the languages of the city are confused.
It is only in the middle of the psalm that we learn that the betrayer who has made their world unsafe is, “my equal, my companion, my familiar friend.” This intimate friend who has shared times both mundane and sacred with the speaker has become their oppressor. The transformation from friend to enemy has broken the petitioner’s world and they cry out for God to judge them like God judged Korah and his company that were taken alive into the realm of death. (Numbers 16: 30-33) Although Sheol as a place of the dead does not have the same meaning as Hell in much Christian thought, the injustice committed by this former close friend and companion has damaged the petitioner so deeply they want them removed from the sphere of the living. As uncomfortable as these words crying out for judgment may be, they need to be spoken and lifted up to God so that they can leave the speaker’s heart. Like Jeremiah 9:1-6 mentioned above, it is neighbors and kin who bring about, “Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!” (Jeremiah 9:6) and now the fate of these friends turned enemy belongs to God. The companion who laid hands on the psalmist and violated their covenant now finds themselves in the hands of the God who is faithful to the covenant.
God will judge the wicked and restore the just. The redemption which the psalmist longs for is not merely a removal of the wicked but also a relief from their anxiety and a complete return to wholeness and happiness. The only life after this experience of betrayal and oppression can come from the LORD who sustains the righteous. Ultimately for the healing to begin the environment must change and the only way the petitioner sees for that to happen in their current state is for the violent betrayer to be removed. There is no trust in one whose speech was smoother than butter and whose words were smoother than oil which hid a heart set on conflict and actions which cut deeply. For the psalmist human beings have proven untrustworthy, and it has driven this righteous one towards God. Perhaps in a place and time where the poet’s center of life has been returned to peace and wholeness there will be a space for reconciliation and forgiveness, but in the immediate aftermath of betrayal as the poet lives in fear and anxiety their horizon can only embrace a future without their betrayer.
 Literally “he will ransom in shalom (peace-wholeness) my nephesh (soul-center of life)” As Beth Tanner notes, “my very life will be protected, not just from harm, but will be restored to complete wholeness and happiness. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 475)
Parallel Luke 12: 33-34, Luke 11: 34-36, Luke 16: 13, Luke 12: 22-32
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Following three practices of righteousness (acts of mercy or giving alms, prayer and fasting) we encounter a set of interconnecting proverbs connecting the relationship of the disciple to wealth and the anxiety encountered around possessions. From the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve seen an emphasis on possessions, giving to those who beg and not refusing those who want to borrow and doing acts of mercy in this kingdom of heaven where the poor in spirit can be blessed. This kingdom of God that the disciple is to seek depends upon the abundance of God’s provisions rather than the disciple’s ability to accumulate wealth, power and property to secure their own future. Their treasure rests with the God they serve and their trust in God’s provision frees them from the anxiety produced by the cares of the world and the lures of wealth.
Martin Luther’s explanation of the first commandment where the disciple is to, “fear, love and trust God above all things” (Luther, 1978, p. 13) taps into the same wisdom as these sayings in the Sermon on the Mount. Love and trust in God are bound together and placing trust in something other than God, like wealth, interferes not only with the trust in God but also the disciples’ ability to love God. If the kingdom of heaven is approaching, like the Sermon on the Mount assumes and Jesus’ practice of sharing the table anticipates, then images like the image of the banquet in Isaiah 55 probably shape the imagination of Jesus’ hearers. As Isaiah can state:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and you labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Isaiah 55:1-2
I’m convinced that the great idol in the United States is security. People are told to attempt to secure the future for their retirement, for their health, and entire industries are engaged in helping people achieve this illusory security they seek. Yet this displacement of joy and happiness to a future time, or the inability to secure one’s own security is a source of anxiety for many people. The accumulation of wealth on earth can provide moments of happiness and treasures and wealth are not bad things, unless they are placed in a position of prominence where they become the meaning of our life, the thing that we serve. Yet, there is a note of hope in this passage because how we use our wealth can help lead us to the life we desire to live. As Mark Allan Powell can state,
Jesus does not want us to give from the heart. He wants us to give according to where we believe our hearts should be, to give according to where we hope our hearts will someday be. Give of your treasure and let your heart catch up. (Powell, 2004, p. 140)
The proverb about the eye being the lamp of the body may seem out of place in between two proverbs talking about treasures or wealth, but when paired with the other two proverbs (and the longer saying about anxiety and possessions) we can see the orientation of the eye towards wealth or possessions is the darkness spoken of here. The culminative effect of this group of sayings is to encourage the disciple to make the wise choice of looking (or seeking) first for the kingdom of God. In contrast to the kingdom of God which is light, seeking the ways of this world is the unwise way of darkness.
Jesus is calling his disciples to trust in God and not to have divided loyalties. As he will later share in the Parable of the Sower those who are ensnared by the cares of the world and the lure of wealth will choke the word that has been sowed among them and make them yield nothing. (Matthew 13: 22) One can trust in wealth or one can trust in God. The NRSV translates mammon as wealth, and while this is correct it misses the way in which the text personifies wealth into an entity which is able to possess and demand allegiance. Mammon becomes an alternative, and an attractive one for many people, to trusting in God to provide security.
After these three proverbs which point to the wisdom of trusting and serving God rather than attempting to secure our own security by hoarding or serving ‘wealth’ we are told therefore not to be anxious about our life and the things we need. The Greek merimnao which is translated worry by the NRSV has the meaning of anxiety or even obsession about the object of concern. (Allen, 2013, p. 77) Food, drink and clothing can become objects of this anxiety when one begins to adopt the worldview of providing one’s own security and provision. God takes care of the birds of the air, the grass of the field and the righteous will be provided for as well. In a world which seeks to ensnare the righteous in its snares and the lure of mammon the disciple of God is called to trust that God has given them enough, that God will provide daily bread and drink and clothing. They are to be different than the nations, to embody a different relationship with the fruit of their labor. The disciples do not abandon sowing or working, but instead this sowing and working is a part of their life before God instead of their own struggle to secure their own future. The future will bring worries of its own, but the God who is faithful today will also be faithful in the future. They live seeking righteousness knowing that they will be filled with the bread and drink of the banquet of God’s kingdom. They seek the security and wealth of the kingdom of God even though they may be the poor in spirit or those persecuted for righteousness sake.
One final translation note that I think is important to hearing Matthew in a less judgmental way. In verse thirty we have the first use of the Greek word oligopistos which is almost universally translated ‘You of little faith’ which is a proper English rendering of this adjective which always appears in the second person form (mostly plural but once as a singular form because it is addressing Peter). This term occurs four additional times throughout Matthew, always addressing either a disciple or disciples. My struggle with the traditional translation is the statement, ‘You of little faith’ in English implies a biting and condescending tone. The more I’ve listened to Matthew’s gospel, the more I’ve read this term as ‘little faith ones,’ a term of endearment or compassion. Instead of upbraiding the disciples who are listening for not having enough faith or trusting enough, perhaps Jesus here, and throughout the gospel is encouraging his little faith ones who are gathered around him, encountering the struggle of seeking the kingdom of God while the snares of the world are still present.
A part of this translation of oligopistos as ‘little faith ones’ goes to the heart of my struggle with the way the Sermon on the Mount is often presented. If Jesus is the embodiment of the judgmental God who is setting an unrealistic perfectionistic standard, then being derided as ‘You of little faith’ makes sense within this context. Yet, I am an heir of the Lutheran reformation which began with one man’s search for a gracious God, and I know that informs my view of Jesus who we meet in the scriptures. It is a part of my search for a way of reading the Sermon in a way that goes beyond an individualistic and moralistically perfectionist reading. I understand this reading is going against the grain of established scholarship, but it is also done for the little faith ones, like myself, who go to the scriptures seeking wisdom and seek the kingdom while still struggling with: the anxieties of the world, having both treasures and hearts in the right place, having eyes turned toward the kingdom of heaven and feeling the pull of two opposing masters.
 Matthew 8: 23-26; 14: 28-31; 16: 5-10; 17: 18-20
When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s the way we received our news was very different from the way we currently consume our news about the world around us. The technology was beginning to change but it was still a time of the three primary commercial networks (NBC, CBS and ABC) with the Public Broadcast Channel. Later Fox would come in on the UHF channels and cable TV would begin to emerge. It was a world of newspapers which were published daily and news programming which would be on at regular morning, evening and nighttime schedules. Perhaps the world moved slower: there were no cell phones, no social media, no internet. It was a world my children wouldn’t recognize and while I don’t want to get caught in a nostalgic idealization of that period I do want to reflect upon the changes that technology and our use of technology has changed us and how the economic models behind these technologies have shaped the news media we consume.
In 1980 a change began within the existing media of television with the advent of CNN, a network devoted to around the clock news coverage. Through a number of events, like the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the Persian Gulf War and the expanded political coverage of Presidential campaigns CNN and then additional dedicated news channels, like MSNBC or Fox News, began to shift the consumption of news from dedicated news times within the day to more frequent viewing throughout the day. Many organizations began showing news programming throughout the day in their waiting areas instead of networks programming. In the 1990s, as more people began using cable TV, the continual availability of new programming and multiple news channels cause the evolution of new types of news programming designed to keep people tuning into the various stations to keep the revenues for those channels going (since advertising is the economic driver of network and cable news). When news is viewed as a consumer product and the purpose is to keep people continually tuning into new and new commentary programs it needs to generate some type of reaction to keep people engaged. The media long ago figured out that people are emotional creatures and that emotions like anxiety and shared disgust would keep people coming back to their channels. This has led to a distorted perception of reality based on what will continue to get people tuning in and increasing the ratings of the news programming rather than an accurate perception of reality. Most people believe, for example, that the world in which we live is less safe than the world they grew up in but statistically this is not true, but media presents to people a reality that is focused on the most violent and most memorable crimes and creates an anxiety that is not based on a balanced view of our world.
As we entered the 21st Century the age of digital information continues to alter the way we get out news and has continued to lower the threshold of review for publication. With the advent of the internet the average user now has access to incredible amounts of information but relatively few ways to effectively filter that information. Search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo all use algorithms to attempt to bring relevant information to the searchers screen but just because a website may be relevant does not ensure it is accurate, honest or true. While websites, blogs, twitter feeds and other places have provided access to people who would not have been able to publish through newspapers, journals and print media they also have removed or significantly lowered the peer review process designed to help insure that information is accurate. Especially with the advent of social media sites like Facebook where people can share information and links and the Facebook algorithm attempts to compute what other people want to see based on likes and shares (and an economic model that pays on advertising on a per click basis) it has led to intentionally misleading or incorrect but ultimately profitable reporting that causes people to view articles based on their shared opinions, disgusts and paranoia. In the past election the proliferation of false and misleading articles based upon a person’s political persuasion continued to build the level of anxiety and mistrust in the political and electoral system. It has become increasingly easy to create echo chambers by surrounding ourselves digitally with people who reinforce or enhance our beliefs, biases and prejudices. It has become much easier to criticize another person’s views without ever having to encounter and experience the other person as a real person because of our digital technology. While the availability of information through the internet and the vast data it can provide is a remarkable technological breakthrough the economic engine of the digital reporting cycle and its continual reinforcement of the truth we want to see, rather than having some peer reviewed or other method to attempt to make the news we consume an accurate picture of reality has led to what many are beginning to term a post-truth reality.
In our society news is a consumer product and probably always will be and yet there are a number of ethical questions that we should be asking about the news that we consume. Is there a way to create a better system that provides a news media that reflects reality better than profitability? Are there ways to encourage people to become critical consumers, especially online, where the threshold for publication is incredibly low and there is no accountability for publishing dishonest or misleading information presented as news? Are we willing to settle for a smaller America where our tribe of people is only those who agree with us, who may look like us and believe the same way that we believe in or are we willing to experience the cognitive dissonance of engaging with someone whose reality may be very different than our own? With each new technology there is an ethical lag as we attempt to figure out the ethical implications of the new technology, what would an ethical consumption of digital media look like? What would be the expected ethics of media presented as factual reporting?
These are not easy questions but they are things that we need to wrestle with if we want a nation of citizens that can make informed decisions then we need the information they receive to be accurate. If we are only consuming media that feeds our anxieties, disgusts, prejudices and biases then we will continue to have an increasingly polarized and divided society. Perhaps it is my idealistic nature but I do believe an ethical media is possible, although difficult, in age of digital consumption.
So, this is the final of the Wisdom of Story reflections after working through this course with Brené Brown and Glennon Doyle Melton (reflection 3 is The Rules which is more of a poetic reflection on the content) and it ended with a profound challenge: what is a community challenge or a global story that you want to write yourself into? This was a hard question because it forced me to think of what are the things going on in my community and in the world, that breaks my heart and to pay attention to that. Where I ended up was highlighted by several conversations I have had over the past weeks and I think it is an area where I need to spend some time both reflecting and creating opportunities to imagine a different big story.
There are so many places where I have seen a growing cultural anxiety paired with malaise in the church, in the communities around us and in the nation. There are so many pieces of this: I believe that we have become addicted to anxiety, almost like a drug, by the continual presence of news and information constantly throughout our lives. Anxiety sells even if it is not an accurate representation of reality- news programs present the worst aspects of the world continually before our eyes and we believe we no longer live in a safe place, even though statistically we are significantly safer than 20 years ago. Like many I have gone through our current election cycle with a bad taste in my mouth because of the ways the candidates have been portrayed. While character matters when elections become primarily about tearing down another person’s character or even demonizing one’s opponent we all lose. I am dismayed by the loss of civility in our public square, where one whose ideas may be different from our own are not only dismissed out of hand but may even be considered ‘un-American’ and in a digital age it is easier to become a troll out to destroy the other person. We live in a polarized and anxious world where there is less of an American dream and more alternate versions of an American nostalgia for a time and place that never truly existed. We become so consumed with work, with taking care of ourselves, with the desire for the next new thing that never quite satisfies that I’m not sure we know what a good life looks like.
That is a huge bundle of tightly wound knots and so how do I begin to untangle it? Well for me it begins with understanding so I can try to imagine a different story. There is a self-reflective component: It will mean thinking critically on my own life and its incessant business and what a good life means for me. There will be a time to listen to other people’s stories and their fears and concerns as well as their hopes and dreams, which is one of the gifts of what I do. As a reflective person, it will also mean that I go back and ask questions both in reading and research but also to question some of the narratives I hear around me. Honestly not sure where it will ultimately go or look like but I’ve got lots of questions and I’m curious enough to see where they might lead.
I stare into the abyss of a future created by the demons of depression
It is not reality, it is not what will happen,
And yet as I cling to the precipice of sanity it is all I see
A nightmare that roams in the day consuming the green meadows of springtime
It saps the passion of the blood and fills my veins with ice
My heart pounds in rebellion, confined within the cage of my chest
Yet I move not
The very things that would free me are denied me
Hope is consumed by the illusion of despair
For it is not real…it is not real…it is not real
You are a liar granting me titles and names that are not mine
I am not worthless or weak or crazy but for your lechery
You are a parasite feeding off my life energy
Consuming the power of my dreams
You are a murderer and my soul is your mark
Locked into your arena, you call on me to yield
To proclaim you the victor
To give up
But you will not last
You will not steal this day and so I fight against my own mind
I name thee, I know thee, and again I rise
Sapped but still standing
Weakened but stronger than thou
For as I walk through your illusion, into the present that is present
I will again find hope and joy
And you shall be vanquished back to the depths of the pit you dwell in
Composed Neil White, 2013