“Thou shall not worry”

sleepless nightBy Joe LaGuardia

“Do not worry,” Jesus told his disciples in no uncertain terms (Matthew 6:25).  It’s one of the clearest admonishments in scripture, and it stands up there with the ten commandments as being, well, God’s Word for us today.

There are many times, however, that I have read that scripture and said, “It is easier said than done.”  I wonder why Jesus told us not to worry when the only thing most of us is really good at is worrying.

Upon reflection, I suppose that there are different types of worrying.

The first is to worry when you are anxious about something in the future.  Since the future has yet to happen and you are not sure whether your fears are founded or not, this worry can be a distraction and can keep you from seeing the blessings in life.

The best medicine for this type of worry is gratitude.  We need to be thankful for what we have, enjoy the moment, praise God for waking us up this morning, and give God any anxiety we may have about what the future may hold.

Jesus said it himself, “Do not worry for tomorrow will bring worries of its own” (Matthew 6:34); and Paul’s letter to the Philippians states, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything be thankful and make your petitions known to God” (4:6).

The second type of worry is chronic worry tied to anxiety disorders or depression.  This type of worry requires intervention and resources that help people move beyond the disorder or cope with it.

Sometimes, a person can go to a therapist for a few sessions and get things straightened out.  Other times, people need therapy or medication over the long haul.

I once knew a person who struggled with an anxiety order, and she concluded that if she only had more faith in God, then the anxiety would go away.

The only problem was (as I saw it) that she already was a person of great faith.

I was able to demonstrate to her how her faith inspired my own life and encouraged so many people around her.   We agreed together that the only way for her to move into a place of acceptance and coping was to get help.

God provides us with some good counselors for a reason, and its helpful to know that all of us deal with chronic anxiety every now and then.

There is a third type of worry with which I am familiar, and that’s the worry I think all of us feel no matter how close we are to the Lord.  This is the worry that accompanies responsibility.

Unlike the first type of worry, this anxiety does not stem from uncertainty or fear of the future.  Nor is it chronic anxiety that paralyzes life.  Instead, this type of worry is that on-going anxiety you feel when you are responsible for someone or something.

If you are a parent, you know what I mean!

There are certain worries that I have only experienced as a father, and these worries do not go away.  I worry for my children’s health, safety, their little God-given spirits, and very lives.

But I also find that this worry is not all bad.  In fact, something would be wrong with a parent who did not worry about his or her child.

It’s a healthy worry because it grows out of concern, compassion, grace, and empathy.  Who wants a parent who does not worry, or an employee who does not worry about meeting a budget or a deadline?

I think that, at the end of the day, we really use the word “worry” for many different things.  Since the second type of worry I mentioned is biological and can’t be avoided, and the third type is required for relationships in which people matter, Jesus may have said, “Do not worry,” to those of us who only struggle with the first type of worry–that of the future.

But no matter the type, not worrying is certainly easier said than done.

Caregivers: Burdened and blessed, and how to move on (Part 1)

About ten years ago, Cynthia took on an important role for her mother, Edith: that of caregiver.  At that time, Cynthia started to care for Edith, (who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease), personally, financially, emotionally, and spiritually.  Edith was such a supportive mother for Cynthia; Cynthia is now doing the same for her.

As Cynthia’s and Edith’s roles reversed, Cynthia realized that being a caregiver was both a blessing and a burden.  Cynthia had moments of fulfillment and joy, as well moments of resentment and anger.  It was a pleasure to help Edith, but the more time Cynthia took to care for her, the more she felt strained, pressured, and mistreated.   No one seemed to help Cynthia, and the blessings of care turned into an endless obligation of dread.

Cynthia is not alone.  The National Alliance of Caregivers states that nearly 29% of the U.S. population (up 5% since 2005) consists of people who care for loved ones, the elderly, or special needs children.   Like Cynthia, many of these caregivers confront mixed feelings of satisfaction and of suffering.

In our society, we depend upon our families for support.   This is, for all practical purposes, the way the world turns.   Yet, we pay very little attention to just how much the task of caregiving requires in terms of time, money, personal energy, and stress.  We certainly fail to see how much strain this places on individuals who are struggling with economic pressures, precarious careers, and much-needed time to raise healthy families.  Nevertheless, despite the many burdens caregivers face, society passes this expectation on from one generation to the next.

Churches have traditionally praised the role of caregivers without pointing out shortfalls.   We hear from the pulpit that Jesus commands us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.  When God seemingly asks us to care for loved ones, we are deny ourselves yet again.

It is this very denial that creates the burdens that sometimes hinder the blessings afforded by healthy caregiving.  By “taking up their crosses,” Caregivers neglect the self-care needed to retreat, renew, rest, and exercise.   Often, caregivers simply don’t have the time to do the things that lead to a more balanced lifestyle.

Self-care takes a back-seat in the face of productivity and pressures: Caregivers work hard to please their loved ones.  To do any less creates feelings of guilt and of impending failure.  This, in turn, feeds a vicious cycle that spirals out of control: blessings, joy, exhaustion, guilt, resentment, anger.

A week passes–perhaps a month or a season–and the cycle begins again.  Caregivers end up broken, spent, and lonely.  Is there ever a chance for renewal, even if only for a few moments at a time?

According to therapists, spiritual leaders, and caregivers well-versed in this field, the answer is a resounding “yes!”   Many studies show that when caregivers invest even a few minutes a week in growing spiritually, attending church (one hour on Sunday will do!), and taking intentional steps to enact self-care, they gain the resources and energy needed to cope with the burdens associated with their particular journey.

Some churches are making a course correction:  As the number of caregivers increase, churches are starting ministries that cater to them and their loved ones.  These ministries create ways to help caregivers grow in their faith with loved ones, not in spite of them.

One way churches minister to caregivers is to explain that self-denial does not mean abandoning self-care and does not exclude receiving care from others.   Caregivers must work with God to allow a new cycle to begin: blessings, joy, exhaustion–pause!–retreat, revive, and renew.

As my church and I put in place a new ministry for caregivers in late September, I would like to take the next few weeks to share some biblical resources for caregivers in our community.    I hope that it will benefit the many caregivers who need some “good news” during these difficult days.

Trinity Baptist Church is hosting the open house of the Center for Caregiver Spirituality on September 30th, 7 PM.   Click on the link for more details.

Ministers, like parishioners, often face depression

In my last post, I wrote of my mini-sabbatical from church and the importance of taking a sabbatical as part of a minister’s spiritual journey.  Sabbaticals are important because they give ministers the space and time to tend to their own personal issues, many of which originate from family, spiritual, marital, and mental strain.  Without the type of release a sabbatical offers, a minister’s work can get the best of him.

Two days before my article printed, Major N. M. Hasan, a military psychiatrist, murdered thirteen individuals at Ft. Hood.  There are several theories why Hasan killed others, but what is most peculiar to me is that Hasan was a psychiatrist.  He belongs to a profession committed to heal people not hurt them.

Hasan’s situation was unique; it is rare that a healthcare provider murders another in cold blood.  It is not uncommon, however, that many healthcare providers face overwhelming job stress and pressure that leads to unhappy endings.  In 2008 the American Medical Association reported that suicide rates among doctors were higher than the national average.  That’s roughly 400 doctors a year.

The reason that healthcare providers commit suicide is because they neglect dealing with distress, depression, and mental illness for the sake of their career.    Ours is a society that expects doctors to be stable and healthy; any sign to the contrary compromises the doctor’s reputation.  Instead of dealing with their issues, healthcare providers suppress their suffering.  Eventually, the stress becomes too much to bear.

As healthcare providers of a different type, ministers also face extreme stress and depression.  Ministers are spiritual pillars of a community, and, like doctors, they find it hard to reach out for help when help is most needed.  Greg Warner, writing for the “Biblical Recorder,” noted that a quarter of all pastors struggle with depression at any given time, many of whom fail to seek treatment with a licensed counselor.

In several other studies on depression among clergy, ministers have cited various reasons for experiencing distress.  Some reasons include job loss, pressure to grow a church, trying to meet unrealistic expectations, and failing to make deep relational connections with trusted support systems.

If ministers do not attend to their spiritual, mental or emotional health over time, their issues can build up and lead to symptoms that we have seen in the public sphere: Pastors get caught committing adultery, engaging in pornography, disengaging from a church, or preaching macabre sermons that lack hope.  Any one of these can be a sign that a minister is not taking steps in dealing with his inner demons.

Talking candidly about ministerial depression or mental illness remains taboo, but churches must take steps to help their clergy face the realities of stress.  Some churches do so by building into the minister’s salary a stipend for professional development or therapy.  In turn, ministers are more open about struggles in which prayer is needed regarding areas of family, finances, marriage, sin, or grief.

Another way churches can help is by encouraging staff regularly.  Writing cards, sending emails of encouragement, providing constructive feedback on sermons, and praying for a pastor can make a world of difference.  Pastors are better prepared to serve churches when they feel their congregations treat them as normal human beings.

In a tech-savvy and therapeutic-centered society, many resources are now available to ministers and doctors who need help with distress.  Retreat houses, therapists, spiritual directors, and pastoral counselors stand ready to help our ministers, but ministers need for us to let them know that seeking help is okay.  Ministers are a part of the Body of Christ and need edification and intervention just   like the rest of us.