Jesus says in Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life” (ESV) and Paul writes in Philippians 4: 6 “do not be anxious about anything” (ESV).
Our theme at Hilltop, where I serve the people of Sandy, Utah, this month is “Let your faith be bigger than your fear.” Great idea and I promise not to advocate exiting a perfectly good aircraft without a parachute: with a parachute is an act of faith, without a parachute is an act of lunacy. Safety is important. I always fasten my car seat belts for even the shortest trip, well, almost always. But are we sometimes overly safety conscious? The late Rabbi Edwin Friedman offers we live “in a ‘seatbelt society’ more oriented toward safety than adventure.” I think he is on to something here. Let's hold that thought briefly and come back to it later.
Many of the clergy I interact with have reached a place where one of the harshest direct criticisms we can level on another clergy is, “you are an anxious presence.” It has a mystical, red letter, scriptural authority. Immediate penance and repentance is expected when this is uttered, immediate. Hester Prynne, Hawthorne’s heroine in The Scarlet Letter, was required to wear a Scarlet A, for adulteress, on her dress. In my world the Scarlet A is for anxious, and we within the clergy world avoid that A as if it were a virus. A leader endowed with non-anxious presence boundaries repels anxiety as a virus.
Here is the issue: who gets to define what anxiety is?
Anxiety might actually be a reaction to another’s desire for urgency. Urgency is often required to bring about change. Some of that change could be altering the status quo. Anxiety might be our preference to hang on to that comforter that is the status quo.
Is it a good idea to let anyone and everyone be the true definer of what is anxiety? Friedman urges us not to give excess power to the most anxious presence in the room. I posit conversely should the one in the room with the largest stake in the status quo decide what anxiety is. If we don’t want to allow the most anxious presence to have the power, I don’t wish to empower one person to define what anxiety is. Dialogue is called for, and honest disagreement may emerge. But a dismissal with the remark, ‘you are just an anxious presence’ needs to be expunged from our leadership tool belt.
Your anxiety may be my urgency. Your anxiety may be my raising the temperature in the room to bring about change.
John Kotter is an expert in leading change. To paraphrase Kotter: ‘The first step in leading change is creating a sense of urgency.’ Urgency might mean we need to move from a too comfortable world. The poet Brian Andreas writes: “Most people don't know there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don't get too comfortable & fall asleep & miss your life.” Overcoming comfortable and missing our life’s call might require urgency.
I believe the church may have reached a place where we need to listen to angels that endeavor to be sure we are not too comfortable and wake us up.
Jesus and Paul and Friedman urge us not to be anxious. What element of our leadership life have angels looked at and said “wake up, you are letting comfort dictate what is going on, following the call of Jesus may not be comfortable or safe.”
There is an irony in my use of Hester Prynne: she is arguably the person of most character in The Scarlet Letter. Her Adulteress A is gradually transformed to an item of beauty, embroidered as a reflection of her inner character. What if allowing others to brand us with an Anxious A is actually a mark of our own transformation, an item of beauty?
Returning to Friedman: What might it take for us to leave the kingdom of safety and instead seek a holy adventure in some presumed unsafe wilderness? The echoes of Exodus there are not accidental.
To be clear, Jesus says to not be anxious. Paul says to not be anxious. It is scriptural to not be anxious. As we jointly tackle an uncertain future, let’s understand that the issue here is urgency and moving from the status quo, and not allow anxiety to define us.
But we need clarity within community as to why and what defines us as anxious. For Hester, her Adulteress A became a scarlet letter of distinction and honor. Maybe if others label you with a Scarlet Anxious A, but you are, in holy humility, confident that you are a Jesus-like and Paul-like non-anxious presence, let it be a scarlet letter of honor. Urgency and raising the temperature in the room so that the status quo is chased does not immediately equal anxiety.
If the issue is urgency and changing the status quo, I believe we can wear that scarlet letter with honor.