Having just come through my first heart attack experience, I am now working on reducing stress. Here I am, in my late 50’s, aware that I have poorly managed stress for pretty much my entire adult life – and only now am I (I think) getting serious about actually healing this, rather than avoiding it or coping with it.
Here’s where I’m beginning: I think that at the core my stress comes from an internal narrative that has been with me ever since I can remember. The narrative goes like this: I am, at bottom, insufficient. I’m not good enough, unless… I cannot consider myself a success unless I am the best at something, I cannot be a success unless I tick off all the boxes – growing church, radical counter-cultural Christian lifestyle, levitation-ready spiritual life, passionate marriage… the list can and probably does go on and on. I am a perfectionist, and something can always be improved – and I am not really okay until it’s all fully improved. Never mind that some of these requirements are contradictory. Never mind that achieving the whole list is totally unreasonable. At a deep level, this is what I believe I must do in order to be acceptable.
So I am always “on the bubble,” as they say at hockey tryouts. Probably won’t make the team, but maybe with a superhuman effort he might manage it. Or he might make the team, but never quite live up to his potential. Normal life leaves me, in my own eyes, struggling to pass the test. Any negative experience, response, criticism, drops me into “fail.”
I write that, and right away I wonder if it’s actually true. I don’t think this way all the time. This is mostly unconscious. After 30+ years of ministry I have a certain confidence in my abilities, and even though I have not led notably growing/thriving churches I think I am aware that what I do in ministry is not failure. But there is, I think, a tension within me, a discomfort, a sense of fear and inadequacy from which I constantly seem to be seeking relief.
My spiritual director recently pointed me towards two Scriptures. One is from Jesus’ baptism: “you are my Son, the beloved – in you I am well pleased.” Over the years I am learning, slowly, to see myself as God’s own, beloved. But the notion that God might be pleased? With me? That’s a real stretch.
The other is from Matthew, the Sabbath reading I often come back to: “Come to me, you who are weary and heavily laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase: “learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”
To begin with insufficiency is to always be in stress, always under judgment, never secure, never at rest. I always must do this first, and then rest, then be okay, not now. Not until.
What would it be to begin with sufficiency, to begin with the sense of being beloved, being okay, being enough? This is what I hope for my own children, that they may have a secure place from which to offer their lives and service. What would it be like to offer freely, rather than in a forced, “or-else” way?
And how does one move from insufficiency to sufficiency? How does one internalize the love of God?
One thought, to close. This is another gem from my spiritual director. We were talking about my experiences on retreat, in a beautiful setting (Kingsfold Retreat Centre near Waiparous, Alberta) – how easy it was to say “thank you” to God for the beauty and restfulness of the place. “Try this,” he said. “Instead of just saying thank you, say ‘Thanks… I love you too.’”
There’s something about giving love that enables me to receive it.