I sit alone on the front row of church pews. The worship team sings its final song before the transition video plays a two-minute clip of the movie Selma on the screens along the stage—a video I specifically chose for this Advent sermon on lament.
The video is my cue to take my position on the stage to preach. “Take your spot, wait for your picture to appear on the back screen, take a deep breath and begin;” those were my instructions from the producer.
I am terrified.
I have so much anxiety.
My heart feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest.
In the first 20 minutes of the service I’ve thought to myself several times, “I wish I could be anywhere but here. Why am I here? Why have I put myself in this position? I just want to go home. I want to be curled up on my couch. I want to be anonymous.”
I take deep breaths attempting to settle the anxiety. It's not working. This feeling is so familiar, yet I’ve paid so little attention to its meaning; intense nervousness is present with me every time I preach. Or, for that matter, every time I give a lecture or present an academic paper. Come to think of it, I have extreme anxiety around most social interactions.
I’m introvert, this is true; but I’m beginning to think this category is a minimization survival strategy and a disassociation from what’s really happening in my body. I am paying attention to my body’s experience of the act of preaching. I’m finally listening to my body’s voice and its speaking to me loudly.
And it’s scared.
I take another deep breath.
I begin to feel a sadness.
Anxiety and sadness. Strange pairing. In the few minutes just before I’m about to preach an Advent sermon on lament, I feel the pangs of a sadness that I’ve never noticed before – grief seems not to have very good timing. Or does it?
Again, I think: “I don't’ want to do this. I don’t want to step up on that stage in front of hundreds of people and give a sermon. Why have I put myself here? Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”
The sadness comes stronger as if from my chest. I feel my eyes beginning to express the sadness concretely.
Another deep breath.
Amid the anxiety and sadness clarity comes. Marvelously, God gives me a gift. As I step up to preach on lament, He reveals another layer of my own heart’s grief. He brings to my consciousness a trauma I’ve never recognized and over which I have never grieved.
It makes so much sense to me, this sadness; though I’m bemused that I have never reflected on it before. I suppose part of the reason I haven’t reflected on it is because it was "my normal." "Anxiety is normal, right?"
I've never thought to compare my experience of nervous tension with what others feel. And is it even possible to compare two individual's experience of anxiety? By what measure do I compare my level of anxiety to another’s? Do others experience as much and to the intensity as I do?
But is this level of anxiety normal? Do others feel it as intensely as I do?
I’ve normalized the anxiety. I’ve minimized and suppressed it. I’ve paid very little attention to it these three decades since feeling “called” to be a preacher.
What is clear to me right now is the intense nerves I experience associated with the act of preaching is traumatic.
Is “trauma” to strong of a word? I wonder. But the term feels appropriate to me now as I reflect on it. It is a dramatic term for the powerful effect I feel in my body, the biochemical cortisol coursing through me. My body is feeling a high level of stress. This is traumatic stress. This is truthful.
I’ve chosen a profession which continuously creates intense anxiety for my body. I’ve been absorbing extreme tension for 30 years without ever considering its power and meaning. Countless numbers of times I’ve preached, presented papers and given lectures. I have been traumatizing myself, my body, as a vocation for three decades.
For the first time in these moments before that message on lament, I am becoming conscious of my unconscious bodily suffering. As I walked up on stage to preach a sermon on the God’s grief and the gift of lament for Advent, I felt a somber sadness.
Why? Because for the first time I am grieving what I chose to do to my body at age sixteen; but, even more, I am grieving why I chose it.
On a now forgotten evening in 1987 at sixteen years of age I went forward during an altar call at Trinity Baptist Church in Clearwater, FL to give public profession of my call to be a preacher. In hindsight I wanted to be a preacher because no one else I knew had the courage to stand up and publically speak about God and the Bible. Being a preacher made me unique and, yes, significant. It was the only path to significance that my imagination was able conceive.
It was something of social suicide to be “preacher” in a public high school.
It was also a commitment to a vocation of perpetual trauma against my own body.
But to be a preacher was choosing an unrivaled position.
The choice was unconscious; it wasn’t a decision I was aware of making. But I made it.
And I’m sure, had I reasoned it through, the prospect of becoming something significant would have far outweighed the cost. At the time, I could not have imagined it differently.
The video plays.
I take my mark.
My picture appears on the screen.