More often than not, I’ve woken up lately feeling like an elephant was curled up on my chest.
Here in the United States we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic that remains relatively unchecked because our leaders lack the political will to make hard choices. Of systemic racism that manifests in new ways every day, including in the Vice President’s refusal to acknowledge it. Of disregard for the environment that has led to sweeping wildfires this summer and, closer to my home, so many hurricanes this season that we might run out of Greek letters to name them. I think my breaking point, though, was clicking on a Washington Post article about presidential election scenarios during my recent doom-scrolling. It predicted that the only situation in which street-level violence and a constitutional crisis were not likely was a Biden-Harris landslide. (I can only assume that the author meant more street-level violence, because let’s be honest about where things already are.)
Oof. Blessed are those of us who deal with anxiety disorders, because it is for such as these that the days feel crushing in body and spirit.
In my vocational life, I regularly deal with anxiety when I coach churches undergoing visioning processes and pastoral transitions. The unease in these systems is invariably high, because these churches aren’t where they were, and they’re not yet where they will be. Part of my job is helping the people assess the stories they’re telling themselves. Sometimes their assumptions are inaccurate, like “we don’t need to do anything differently, we just need to bring in more young families.” More often, though, their narratives are true but not helpful, such as, “we lost half our members because of a conflict 30 years ago, and our congregation has been struggling ever since.” In either case, the challenge is to unearth a different storyline – one that is faithful and forward-looking.
The result is not a cheap kind of optimism. It is clear-eyed and hard-won, calling the situation for what it is, looking for God’s invitations in it, and partnering with God in those efforts. Both the discernment and the response to it are reign-of-God-building work, allowing tweaks in habit to become the changes of heart that make re-creation possible.
Recently I realized I had been operating out of a largely true but unhelpful assumption: the world is a flaming trash heap. I will wake up weighed down and exhausted as long as I stay in that story. And so, I’m looking for a new narrative. One where I seek God in the chaos moving in mighty and mischievous ways. One where I choose to join other agents of change in giving time, energy, and money, in listening to others’ voices, and then in raising my own. One where I deeply believe that love will have the last word, because our redeeming God is love incarnate. This is not an easy story to live into, but it is one I find in scripture. It is one that allows for hopeful action. It is one that enables me to kick the three-ton elephant out of my bed.
If you are currently bedfellows with a snoring, unbudging pachyderm who won’t let you breathe in the courage of God’s Spirit, I invite you to join me in living toward stubborn, active optimism.
Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach working with ministers and churches across the ecumenical spectrum. Having served in a variety of pastoral roles and denominations, she is primarily affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and has ministerial standing in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Based in northwest Alabama (United States), Laura is married to a United Methodist pastor, and they have a seven-year-old son. She blogs weekly at laurastephensreed.com.
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