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The Anxious Christian – A Sermon

The following sermon was preached on July 23rd, 2017 at the Clarksville Highway Church of Christ in Joelton, Tennessee. The sermon title is borrowed from the book The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith (see endnote below). As with any sermon I preach I use some of the material and others I leave out. I tried to stay as close to the manuscript as I could. Grace and peace as you read this.

The Anxious Christian

It was the Fall of 2013 and we had just completed a crazy summer in youth ministry. Most summers are hectic but this one served as one of the craziest I have ever experienced. I honestly felt like responsibilities came at me in supersonic waves and before I knew it I was put through the ringer. Couple all those responsibilities with some major changes at church and I was ill-prepared for what was about to happen. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population.”[1] I remember sitting in my office one day while I was studying Scripture and a wave of dread came over me in an indescribable way. It was like a cloud of darkness suddenly engulfed my thinking and all I could think about was the pit of my peril. The anxiety manifested itself into a belief that I was dying and I became obsessed with small pains in my body that, through the lens of anxiety, seemed like signs of cancer or a life-threating illness. I Googled symptoms and things got worse. I was in my house one day and felt a sharp pain in my leg and immediately started to panic and rushed to the Emergency Room. I thought it was blood clot. After extensive tests their conclusion was that nothing was wrong with me.

I kept getting headaches and I learned that anxiety will sometimes lead into other symptoms and cause serious physical problems. Consider Job’s experience:

The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me.  I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever. (Job 30:27-30)[2]

I called a Psychiatrist because I knew something very wrong was going on with me. I didn’t grow up with anxiety problems or depression issues and so I had no language to describe what my mind was thinking. In fact, my mind kept playing tricks on me. In one month I visited the ER a total of three times, the doctor four times and various specialists two times thinking something was drastically wrong with me. I finally got my diagnosis a month and a half later: I had what was called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I tried different medicines and eventually settled with one that helped reset the chemicals in my brain. I started to work out more, read more and with the help of God I slowly have learned to cope with anxiety.

So why am I sharing this with you right now? When I first started struggling with anxiety I felt like churches were not really a safe-haven for those inflicted with anxiety. I would talk about my struggles and people would say, “Robbie just quit worry about stuff and trust Jesus” or they would say, “Perhaps you need to pray more” as if my mental plight is directly related to how many times I pray (or don’t). Church, unfortunately, was not safe space for me. So I started blogging about it and droves and droves of people started messaging me describing their anxiety and how they wish the church could be more of a safe space for folks. A place of healing. A place of learning about our struggles. So this message comes to you in the audience who are currently in the thicket of anxiety and you feel like nobody is listening. This message is for you. It is also for those of us who are called to “bear one another’s burdens” which means walking with people in this difficult time. A caveat is I am not a mental health professional and so most of my message is learned from folks who poured into me to help with healing. So I have two groups of people to talk to today. The first…

To the church in general…

I think we need to do better at helping people who struggle by admitting our own.

Whether explicitly or implicitly we have made the church to look like a collection of nice folks who have it all together who meet a few times a week for a “pick me up” by singing a couple of happy songs and sharing in on a positive message. The closest we get to talking about our problems is quoting Romans 3:23 saying “all are sinners” but rarely does our struggle sharing delve deeper than that. The result is people simply go elsewhere with their problems or worse; they don’t even address them at all. I remember sitting in an AA meeting one time and the topic of church came up and one particularly disgruntled man said about his alcoholism, “We can’t talk about this stuff (he used another word) at church. There’s no place for us there.”

Church if we are not helping the brokenhearted and struggling people then we are simply setting up shop and wasting our Lord’s time. I read the pages of my New Testament and there were some pretty messed-up folks that our Lord loved. When it comes to anxiety I didn’t know where to turn and people from church didn’t seem to resonate with my struggle.

I think we as a church also need to work on good ways to help but also understanding bad ways to help folks with anxiety.

People simply are just not educated about how to help so sometimes they say the best thing that they know about at the time.

  • Quit worrying…I wish I could. It is not like a microwave that has a power button.
  • It’s all in your head…of course it is. I need to deal with it though.
  • Doctors are just trying to shove meds down your throat, don’t take them…But what if I need them? Shouldn’t a professional make that decision for me?

You want to know how a person can help folks with anxiety? Presence. Not an answer. Not a formula for getting rid of it. Simple presence. Someone who advocates to the father on your behalf and is willing to pick up the phone when you are having a tough time. I once thought about starting a support group for those with anxiety and calling it something unique like AA 🙂 or something but I have yet to do it.

We need more support.

We need each other.

Now a word or two to those in the audience who are struggling with anxiety.

First of all, anxiety is a gift.

I read a book in 2013 during my struggles that changed my thinking. It was called The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith and in that book he shared a couple quotes that I will not soon forget. He said:

  • Anxiety can often indicate to us that there is something constructive happening within us, beckoning us to follow it in order that our lives may be transformed.[3]
  • Anxiety reminds us that we are alive, a feeling that is important in keeping us from going numb and withdrawing from the life God desires for us.[4]

In the moment of angst when the world is spinning around it is hard for us to fathom that what we are struggling with is a gift. Curse is more like it. But gift? Yet through my anxiety I have been able to know God deeper than ever before. Paul said, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).

That leads me to my next point…

God is not absent in our anxiety but right in the thick of it.

Psalm 94:19 in the Common English Bible reads: “When my anxieties multiply, your comforting calms me down.” Rhett Smith is again informative in his book:

One of the reasons we experience anxiety is that God is persistently trying to move us through the wilderness, because it is in that wilderness that we are most dependent upon Him. It is in that wilderness experience that God shapes us into the people He desires us to become.[5]

I remember coming home from work early one day wondering why I could not shake this anxiety deep within me. At one point I remember running into the boys’ room, locking the door and I started balling like a baby. Uncontrollable sobbing. With my hands clinched I punched the bed and yelled, “Why God? I have everything I could possibly imagine and I still am miserable.” I couldn’t hear God then but slowly I started getting an answer from him. He said to me, “You’re right Robbie. You do have everything. A loving wife, a nice home, a wonderful job, beautiful kids. But you don’t have me.”

In my worries and angst I had neglected reading of Scripture, praying and God was there even in the midst of all of that. When I look at many of the characters in Scripture I see a lot of humanity in turmoil. Death, financial hardship, frustrations, anguishes is all part and parcel for the course of life in this world. The dream God has for us is not the same as the American dream. Folks, if all we get is God then we have gained the entire world.

Dear friend, in your anxiety God is with you.

Thirdly,

You are not alone.

When I endured this I remember thinking that I was the only one feeling this way. What made it worse was that somehow in this struggle I felt like less of a man. I remember apologizing to Heather a lot because I was not the man she deserved. In one particularly weak moment I remember calling my dad trying to explain to him what I was feeling and not having the right words to say so I just inaudibly cried while trying to talk to him.

After walking through my struggles with a counselor I remember feeling a sense of peace when she assured me that I was not alone and that many men feel this way. Then soon my friend began to struggle this way too and he and I began to journey together.

Friend, I am not sure where you are at in anxiety. Perhaps you worry about the future and it paralyzes you from making decisions. Maybe you have anxiety because of some physical ailments that leave you weak or disabled. Maybe your anxiety stems from chemical imbalances in the brain. Maybe you are afraid of something happening to your family and anxiety keeps you from letting them mature like they should. Maybe anxiety has led you to cope with life’s difficulties through alcohol, pills, drugs or some other coping mechanism.

I don’t know where you are at but I do know one thing.

You are not alone.

Here’s the thing, God wants you to open your eyes to him and in the midst of your struggle to hang on with him. I am not promising your anxiety will be gone as mine comes and goes. It may become more difficult before it gets better. I am not promising an easy solution that God is going to miraculously take your anxiety away (although I pray for that).

What I do promise is God’s unwavering presence in your plight and you will have my arm around your shoulder in the midst of this. Then my prayer will be that others will look at your struggle and will come to one conclusion and one conclusion: How great is our God.

 

__________________________________________________

[1] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-adults.shtml

[2] All Scripture comes from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Rhett Smith. The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? (Kindle Locations 383-385). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 387-388).

[5] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 541-543).

 

Devotion to God – A Frustrating Endeavor – Chapel Speech

Devotion to God: A Frustrating Endeavor

Goodpasture Christian School Chapel Speech – February 9, 2017

By Robbie Mackenzie

            “What is the toughest thing you have ever done?” I wonder what your responses, as a relatively young group of people, would be to that question. No doubt many of you have encountered difficult situations growing up or perhaps many of you are in those types of situations even as you hear these words. Doing some research across the Internet I am astounded by what difficult things humanity has accomplished.[1] A man by the name of George Hood was able to hold a plank for one hour and twenty minutes. I don’t know about you but after thirty seconds of a plank my body is convulsing and pretty close to forcing anything stored in my stomach to projectile outward. Nik Wallenda was able to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. A guy named Dashrath Manjhi did an amazing and most difficult thing:

His wife died due to lack of medical treatment since the nearest doctor was 70 km away from his village. He did not want anyone else too suffer the same fate, so he carved a through cut that was 110 meters long, 7.6 meters deep in places and 9.1 meters wide to form a road through the mountain. He worked every day and night for 22 years to do this and reduced the distance between the Atri and Wazirganj areas of the Gaya district from 75 km to 1 km. He was given national acclaim for his feat.[2]

Humans have done some pretty difficult things. What I want to speak about this morning is that the toughest thing you will ever do is following God. The theme for this month, so I have been told, is devotion to God and what I want to speak to is about the frustrating aspect of following God.

Following God, I thought, was like growth in a stock market. Sure there were some ups and downs but mostly it was an upward trajectory. After almost eighteen years of following God I must admit it looks more like that pile of Christmas lights you find in the attic. It is convoluted, jumbled and hard to define where it stops and where it starts. Mike Yaconelli in Messy Spirituality once said, Spirituality is a mixed-up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down toboggan ride of unexpected turns, surprise bumps and bone shattering crashes.”[3] I know you are supposed to have chapel speakers come and be funny, cute and say weird things and while I have done that before my goal this morning is to speak truth with you and share what real devotion to God looks like. I have prayed over this message and while I never place too much stock in one speech nor do I anticipate many lives to change because of one message I still pray that your heart will melt and you will experience God in a real and tangible way.

WHY IS DEVOTION TO GOD SO HARD?

In the first place, devotion to God is hard because this world is filled with confusingly rampant painful circumstances. A former elder at the church I used to work for recently died at the age of fifty-seven from a fungal infection that came undetected and by the time treatment was started it had already accomplished its destruction. I asked Facebook the same question I opened this speech with, “What is the most difficult thing you have ever experienced?” Below are some of their heart-breaking responses:[4]

  • Bury my son a week after his 9th birthday.
  • Dealing with a miscarriage after fertility issues and treatment.
  • Breast Cancer.
  • Losing my mom after watching her lay in icu for a month before. Opening the Christmas gifts she had already gotten for all of us while she was in the hospital, unconscious.
  • Coming to grips with the fact my daddy wasn’t going to make it and having to let him go.
  • Facing divorce and being a single mom.
  • Consequences of past choices made while living in sin.
  • Losing my one of my twin sons the day after their birth.
  • The divorce of my parents.
  • Probably the most prevalent spiritual marker in my life was the eight or so years in a deep battle with depression brought on by the disappointment of expecting other humans to be my savior.
  • Getting my son through his first year and a half trying to correct his clubfeet, having colic and me fighting postpartum depression.

The biblical writer David once said, O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way?” (Psalm 13:1).

Secondly, I think we struggle with our devotion to God because of our sin. Paul said we are all sinners and the psalmist declared that there is no one righteous but when we continue in sin it becomes hard to hear what God wants. It is like our mind has become clouded with things in this world and we then lose our focus on anything spiritual. Paul, an apostle, even struggled: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:19).

Thirdly, devotion to God is frustrating because, in my opinion, we weren’t taught how and we weren’t taught well. In other words, many times nobody sat down with us and explained how to walk the Christian life. The fancy term is nobody discipled us. Your experience is not like mine but basically my discipling was like this: 1) Somebody studied with me about the Scriptures, 2) I was baptized and 3) I was handed a bible and told to keep coming to church services and praying. They had great intentions but nobody coached me on how to handle life when your best friend growing up overdoses. Nobody helped me when one of my family members embarrassed me at a family reunion making fun of me because I believed in Jesus. My gut tells me that many of you are not being discipled and mentored on how to handle difficult situations.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

First of all, quit sinning. It’s hard to trust in God and become devoted to him if we are neck deep in willful sin. We will never completely rid ourselves of sin but my goodness we can avoid the obvious. If you are partying, sleeping around and addicted and wonder why you struggle with God then you are missing the obvious. It’s not easy, but you must quit sinning. “No one who lives in him [God] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (1 John 3:6).

Second, find a mentor. Find someone whom you respect and is at a place in their life where you would eventually want to be. The tragedy of our spiritual lives is that we always think we are on the right path. Find someone who will tell you what you need to hear instead of what you want to hear.

Third, become disciplined. Most of my mess-ups in life can all find their way back to one reality: I lacked self-discipline. I am reading a book about the 1936 US Men’s Rowing Gold Champions called Boys in the Boat. In that book author Daniel Brown chronicles how post Great Depression Era kids from the sticks in Washington who hardly knew how to row ended up becoming gold medalists. When author Brown talks about the difficulties of rowing it struck a chord with me. Listen to this quote:

The common denominator in all these conditions— whether in the lungs, the muscles, or the bones— is overwhelming pain. And that is perhaps the first and most fundamental thing that all novice oarsmen must learn about competitive rowing in the upper echelons of the sport: that pain is part and parcel of the deal. It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.[5]

Pain comes to all Christians. It is an inevitable and frustrating part of the deal. Yet I see people who have unspeakable tragedy thrown at their face and they develop an even more intense devotion to God than before? Why? They are disciplined to keep at it. Some of us need to become more disciplined in our devotion to God. Last time I checked the word “devote” is embedded in devoted and so we would be wise to do the hard work of following God.

Fourthly, trust that God is at work and in your midst. I have had some very dark times as a God-follower but in those times God has always showed up. I am not here to try to explain the difficult things in your walk with god but I am here to testify that God is here even as we speak. He told Isaiah long ago and this is a verse I cling to when faith in God is laughable to me: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10).

Devotion to God is worth it. Frustrating? Yes. But worth it.

__________________________________

[1] https://ashotofadrenaline.net/amazing-human-feats/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007): 27.

[4] I didn’t share all of them because of time constraints. So if you are reading this and yours was not shared it was because of time. I love you for sharing though.

[5] Daniel Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (p. 40).

Chumbawamba and Life’s Disappointments

Has life been disappointing for you lately? Perhaps you have applied for job after job and interviewed with a dozen potential employers only to be told, “You had a good interview but we have hired someone else.” Maybe you were in peak physical condition and all of the sudden you have one mishap after another and you find yourself in poor health. Or maybe one of you reading this just find yourself in a place you thought you would never be. You had big dreams for yourself coming out of high school and college but now your life is the exact opposite of where you thought you would be. Worse, your friends post pictures of their “perfect” life on Facebook and all you can do is a muster up the energy to block them so you don’t have to see it day after day.

Life can be very frustrating. The biblical character Job said it well when he said, “Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1). Sometimes life does not make sense. I guarantee you I have heard the word “no” in some form or fashion a few thousand times just this year. Then it seems Murphy’s Law comes in full force and waves of disappointment crash on me like a restless ocean tide. I remember a pivotal moment when I was selling insurance and trying to make ends meet and I just felt like everything was crashing down on me. I found myself in my office, on the floor crying as if God had placed a success vacuum that sucked every bit of progress around me. Thomas Merton describes this feeling well:

“A man who is stripped and poor and naked within his own soul will unconsciously tend to do the works he has to do for his own sake rather than for the glory of God.”[1]

Yep. It is hard to see the light in a well when all you do is dig. Click To Tweet Folks I have done a lot of digging in my life and not once have I ever found peace in a well of despair and despondency. I have found plenty of companions in that well but not peace.

So what do you do?

Chumbawamba is the name of a pop group from the 90s. They released a song in 1997 called, “Tubthumping” and was quite possible the weirdest song I ever heard. Nonetheless there is a phrase in this song that occurs over and over again that caught wave and I think it is pertinent to how we address life’s disappointments:

I get knocked down
But I get up again
You’re never gonna keep me down (Repeat dozens of times)

Disappointments are part of living. They are little reminders that our lives really are beyond our control. I can throw my hands up in the air and with a fatalistic shout I can scream, “It’s not fair” but really nobody will listen. Or, I can learn from how life tries to knock me down and I can get up and be better. Rocky said, “It is about how hard you get hit and keep moving.” It really is. Cancer, loss of life, financial ruin, ongoing disability, senseless murder and everything else that life hands us can not master us because we will not let it.

We will get knocked down but we will get back up.

Thanks Chumbawamba.

____________________________________

[1] New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 58.

The One Thing Tony Horton, Words with Friends and Trivia Crack all taught me

Three stories and I will make my point.

First, Heather and I did P90x for a season where we tortured our bodies while the ageless Tony Horton put us to physical shame. There were a lot of Tony Hortonisms in his workouts but one thing I remember him telling me that stood out was that he said people quit too early before they finish their reps. Some people only think they can do just one more push-up and so they get that in their mind and give up. Leave that weak sauce at home Tony says. Bring it!

Next you remember the games Words with Friends and Trivia Crack? Like most of you I downloaded them and started playing my Facebook friends. Soon I realized that I was not as smart as I thought I was. The games actually let me know just how dumb I really was and said that each week I was like 678 out of 700 in ranking of my friends (hyperbole for effect). There were times that I would get close to winning and then I would proceed to get smoked by that addict friend who is a Level 82 Gandalf at Trivia Crack. Get a life. Many Dozens of times I would quit before even finishing the game.

 

“Why?” you say.

I hate losing.

“What’s the point of this blog?”

Simple: We quit way too early with things thus learning none of the valuable lessons losing teaches us.

We quit way too early with things thus learning none of the valuable lessons losing teaches us. Click To Tweet

None of us enjoy losing especially with things that actually matter. By losing I also mean struggling, falling or failing. Pain of some kind you might say. I am not going to get on my soapbox about how our give-an-award-to-everyone culture has actually hindered our growth because you don’t want to hear that rant (see what I did there?). I just want to say that we quit too early. We don’t hang in there like we should. As a youngster playing baseball I had an irrational fear of pitchers who could throw really fast. Maybe I didn’t want to get hit or maybe I didn’t want to be embarrassed about striking out. I remember many times backing out of a pitch that was fast or too close. I also remember my dad saying yelling at the fence, “Come on Rob! Hang in there!” I eventually did. I did not quit.

Don’t quit things that matter friends.

Your family.

Your marriage.

Your dream job.

Your faith.

Your life.

I do know that the best things God offers us in this life are forged in the factory of pain and difficult times. That may sound like hypocrisy and depending on your story you might be in a world of pain right now willing to give up.

Don’t do it friend. Winston Churchill shares some wisdom: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

Keep going friends. This is not a trite workout mantra to get you to look better nor is it a resolution to get you to be successful in business. It’s about you and God.

Keep going.