I am a paid professional religious person.
Being “nice” is surely part of my job description.
I am expected to do things like speak of Jesus, comfort the sorrowing, and offer to pray for them.
But may I confess a troubling secret?
An alarming number of my privileged duties are done with fear tumbling and clanging in my guts like a loose quarter in a clothes dryer.
I’m embarrassed to admit how hard it often is for me, a man who actually loves prayer and believes in it with a startling degree of confidence (such that you'd be embarrassed yourself if you knew how much I believe it matters for forming the future) to ask someone if I may pray for them.
When the dear soul before me is struggling or despondent, lonely or weeping, grieving or anxious, and it is my privilege AND vocation to ask if they’d be willing for me to pray for them at the end of a visit or counseling session, a fear slithers into my ear and urges me to hold off.
Like the worrisome and maternal Cassie, that animated pink dragon in Dragon Tales who literally shrinks when afraid, sad, or upset, my confidence shrivels and threatens to duck for cover under the nearest Oak-leaf Hydrangea bush in reaction to the mere thought of as simple a task as asking another if I may pray for him.
You’d think I was asking them to write me a check for $200,000.
Facing the demoralizing embarrassment of a scornful grimace momentarily freezes me like I’m leaning too far over the brow edge of a wall at Rock City.
The anticipation of choking on the awkwardness I’ve just exhaled into the room should I offer a prayer tries to bully me into silence.
There’s usually some millisecond of threat when I have to decide if I will risk the potential embarrassment, brave the possible offense, or chance the odd moment to do what I think is best.
But despite all that, I usually go ahead and do it any way.
And I am always glad.
Courage or Comfort, But Not Both
Brené Brown has observed, “you can have courage or you can have comfort, but you don't normally get both of them at the same time.”
She’s further concluded, “after I give a speech, if I don’t feel a little nauseous afterwards, then I probably didn’t actually show up.”
So much of what we may be asked to do on God’s good earth will involve the threat of embarrassment.
Tim Ferris suggests the famous boxing trainer, Cus D’Amato, often reassured his anxious boxers, like former Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson, during pre-fight jitters, “The hero and the coward usually both feel the same thing but the hero uses his fear...and the coward runs.”
It's stupid for me to fear such things. But when I do, I can either run away, or push past the fear.
I have no experience of anyone at any time, after my asking if I might pray for them, glowering at me as they poured a large bucket of frigid water over my head.
No one has ever called the cops, ranted on Facebook, or verbally berated me for asking if I might petition the heavens on their behalf.
Quite to the contrary, they are ordinarily thankful. Or at least they pretend to be. They customarily act comforted. It seems to give them a kind of strength, a dash of consoling repose, and a bit of hope. Of course, this and more is what I'm aspiring for when I offer to pray for someone.
But neither they, nor I, gets the chance to experience that gifted moment, unless I'm willing to disobey some nagging, eloquent, but ultimately, ridiculous fears.
All Growth Demands Risk?
And sometimes these swarming gnats of fear, pester me before I preach, before I teach, or prior to convening with another in a distressing situation. Likewise before leading a group meeting, and I can reliably assume fear’s appearance ahead of every potentially difficult phone call.
In my pre-ministry days while working for a software company where I might be calling a programmer or the bankers who used our software, I’d find myself stuck in quicksand. Before each call, I’d nervously work through the potential conversation in my head. I knew in the moment, my ability to self-edit would be erased and the possibility of exposure would be pronounced.
I might not know an answer that I was certain I should know.
I could misspeak and sound stupid.
What if I gave bad advice and fouled up an important process?
The terror of the embarrassment seemed so final and authoritative. But thankfully, eventually, I would mostly dial the phone anyway, whenever my psyche waved a wand of fear to turn me into a statue of stone.
It’s been a long-time affliction. But one that my faith helps trample.
I’ve been heartened to realize repeatedly, that indeed, “All growth in grace involves increasingly great risk-taking.”
That’s how Gerald May, the psychiatrist described what it feels like to side-step our nearly ubiquitous, internal, self-protective misgivings as we learn to rely on God and take the necessary leaps of courage required to love, serve, and benefit others around us.
No matter how often you have disobeyed those persuasive fears that record possible threats in your mind faster than a court stenographer can record the prosecution’s questioning of a witness, you are forever in the spot of having to trust him again the next time you act.
No matter how many times the branch he has bidden you to walk out on has held firm by the adhesive of his reassuring promise, you have to believe all over again whenever there is another venture in branch-walking presented to you.
And each time you have to trust all-over again, it is, or can be, scary, all over again. Because though God has shown up 10 times, he might fail the 11th. Though he has been there 999 times, who knows about the 1000th?
Enterprising fears exploit these moments. Nearly every opportunity to show love, help someone in need, or have a hard-but-necessary conversation, will demand some risky hurdling over our apprehensions and deep commitments of self-preservation. There is no escaping it.
Most the valuable aspects of our lives that we are privileged to be part of will require that we do or say something that we’re sure beforehand is going to embarrass us fatally. For the person of faith, there’s the assurance that most generally, as my favorite pastor, Joe Novenson, says “whenever you walk through the door marked fear, you usually meet Jesus on the other side.”
Of course, that meeting of Jesus might come in the form of another’s tearful smile when you overcome the awkwardness you anticipate to give them a compliment. It might make you feel silly, but they will feel renewed. Mark Twain famously insisted that he could “last two months on a good compliment.” Most folks can do the same.
Or it may take the shape of a deeper connectedness with a timid friend who’ll suddenly discover as you risk embarrassment to identify with her confusion and uncertainty, that she’s not actually the solitary instance of this brand of hurt in the world. And you might discover it too!
Try inventorying how many things you want to do, or are convinced you ought to do, but simply will not, because comfort-demanding fears are hamstringing your courage. You might be astounded to unveil how many instances your commitment not to be embarrassed is imprisoning you and diminishing your life.
David Brooks in a recent discussion of Michael Lewis’ new work, The Undoing Project, describes Amos Tversky, a famed cognitive and mathematical psychologist, as being “idiosyncratic.” “Amos thought people paid an enormous price to avoid mild embarrassment, and he himself decided early on it was not worth it.”
Maybe we’ll reach the same conclusion.
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at firstname.lastname@example.org