Framing Anxiety

Anxious feelings pervade our lives these days. The impending climate catastrophes, the horrors of Putin’s war on the people and land of Ukraine, the Trumpists’ efforts to destroy our republic in the name of “saving” it, the inflation at the pump and in the grocery aisle. Anxiety in our stomachs and in our adrenal glands, sits like a ghost of hopes dashed by waves of history we didn’t see coming. We were riding high on the promises of progress, evolution, and technology. We thought that if we could only expand the sphere of democracy and choice we would choose the good or that the good was in our power. But it wasn’t and isn’t.

And so anxiety returns, not just as a miasma of our time but as the existential reality that has always been at the heart of being human, of facing an unknown future. What is it? It is always more than the fear that has a name and an object. It is a looming unnameable shadow that cannot be tamed by our purposes or understanding. It lies in that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach that feels like the mythic original Fall of all humanity.  Sometimes it arises in our dreams and nightmares as our deep consciousness tries to name it, wrestle with it, and take on the scars it seeks to inflict on our waking lives. More than the loss of agency we feel in rage, it is an emptiness in face of the unknown.  That is why some theologians, like Paul Tillich, put it at the core of their understanding of the human before God. Sometimes we English speakers turn to German and call it Angst, as if that would both grant it deeper meaning while objectifying it into another, more graspable world. But anxiety is by nature ungraspable. It is the deep apprehension that we cannot deal with the next moment, the next day, the next year—the future as hostile emptiness, a black hole devouring all possible futures.

Because anxiety is precisely a chilling sense of inadequacy before the future, it is the preferred weapon for those who would rule over us, claiming that only they can relieve us of this terrible burden. They turn anxiety into fear, which they can project onto an enemy that can be defeated. Rather than being intrinsic to the human condition, anxiety is projected onto an enemy force with distinct perpetrators—the ghostly Them—who can be cleared away for the sake of our security. The dictatorial savior is granted powers as extensive as the anxiety pervading our isolated lives. It is a power that always ends in ruin.

Manipulation of our anxiety is not the only ruinous path. We may also fabricate a tiny drama of cheerfulness around us. We can be more than nice, a smiley face on legs. We can even find a world that looks like nice, whether on the screen, the cruise ship, the casino, or the amusement park. We can create a world of make-believe to hide the anxiety from ourselves. We all resort to these crutches for the soul. But they cannot rebuild our legs so we can walk into an uncertain future with some sense of equanimity.

What then do the sages of the human spirit recommend? Wherefrom can spring an equanimity in the face of the future’s intrinsic unpredictability and menace? Appeals to God’s justice or loving purpose for all of creation threatens every inequality by which the richer world survives, thus dissolving the very props by which we seek to fend off our anxious feelings.  Neither can an ethical hope slay this dragon, for appeals to hope itself may only intensify a preoccupation with the untameable future. Even the vision of a benevolent Jesus or Mary filling our future frame still holds us captive to the breathlessness that threatens our very life. A coming Messiah still is swallowed up in the cloud of anxiety itself.

We have, though, the claims of the Now, whether in Jesus’s famous admonition to live like the resplendent lilies of the field (Matt. 6:25-34) or the mindful meditation of our Buddhist teachers. Being present in the moment, including the anxiety that may pervade that moment can open us up to the Life that is seeking expression through us at every moment.

In that moment, release from death-filled anxiety comes in the tangible help we might extend to someone with desperate need for food, for shelter, for comfort in the face of death, for a way out of addiction, itself born so often of anxiety. It is this work of charity, of human connection, of love in the classic sense, that we can find release from anxiety’s black hole.

And then there is the tree. Though we humans have learned to live on ice and rock and treeless tundra, it is to the tree that we return, for it is from the trees that we arose, whose wood has framed our lives on land and water, that has heated our homes, and provided fruits for us to eat, leaves to nourish land in turn, from which the wild extravagance of nature’s bounty grows. And in the tree’s steady, patient circles of annual renewal we find a framing for a life lived in anxiety about the next moment of uncertainty. And of course, there is more—in religious lore, artistic rendering, and even song. In clinging to the tree, even death on and in a tree, we find some harmony with ever resurgent life.

I find these days that the tree gives me a particular kind of immediate activity that transforms my anxiety into peace. For me, even more particularly, it is a turn to the material meditation of my woodcraft. In reworking wood from death to new life as a useful or beautiful object, I find a focus on the moment that is life-giving. In this craft I find a little path to reframing my anxiety as the emptiness of a bowl whose lines and looks evoke receptiveness, acceptance, and a circle of renewal. In building a table I am drawn back into the meals that give shape to human life and the conviviality of a common world.

I would love to hear what is the “wood” in which you also find a way out from the anxiety that plagues our lives so deeply, especially in these times of loss.





Posted in Theology, Woodworking, Worship and Spirituality | 7 Comments

Righteous Anger

Our recent Roundtable Worship focused its conversation on “righteous anger.” While the Bible attributes this emotion to God throughout Israel’s record and it is referenced many times in the Christian writings, both Jesus and Paul, as well as others, caution us from assuming that our anger is righteous or that it even is good for our souls. Since most of us feel a good deal of anger these days, we had some deep conversation about how we should deal with it, both in extinguishing and in constructively channeling it. Here’s our liturgy from that gathering that disposed us to our conversation:

Call to the Table (antiphonal)

            Out of the angry storm of wounded hearts,

                        You call us to the quiet river of your peace.

            Away from numbing noise and blinding lights,

                        You lead us to the conversation of your love.

            In rocky soils of our despair

                        You plant a forest of your promise.

            In a world of blind hostility

                        You set a table of your mercy.

            We come to your table,

Your table of peace.

ALL: Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

Remembrance (Unison)

            In our beginning hands reached out with nurturing fruits.

            In our frenzy to control our world the hand became a fist.

            Over ages promises were made and sealed, only to be broken.

            In the gift of your forgiveness, we walked forward hand in hand.

            In the promises of prophets we were led by stars unknown.

            In a faithful mother’s labors we were born to life anew.

 In a death fomented by the rage of our rebellion,

            You revealed a life eternally renewed by love.

                        Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

Thanksgiving  (Unison)

O loving source of all creation,

For each day in which we breathe from your unending life, we give you thanks. For each gift of love sustaining earthly hope we give you hearty thanks. For your forgiveness that releases us from crushing guilt and dark despair our hearts are filled with gratitude. For the fellowship of table conversation our lips sing out your praise.



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Roundtable Call and Remembrance

Some of you have expressed appreciation for receiving elements of the liturgy for our monthly Roundtable Worship here in the mountains of North Carolina. After the lighting of a candle on our roundtable, we begin with the antiphonal Call that opens the way to dialogue. After a song, we then turn to Remembrance of the gracious work of reconciliation that has brought us to this day. That is followed by a thanksgiving, a taste of bread and drink, a reading, our conversation, and prayers of hope and commitment. Here are the Call and Remembrance from our last gathering for your use or meditation.

Call to the Table

   From the darkness of depression and despair,

                        You call us to the light illuminating all creation.

            Out of the glittering distractions of the turmoil around us,

                        You draw us to the peace of your courageous beauty.

            In the midst of all the horror of our lost humanity,

                        You reach out in hands of mercy and repair.

            When all our roads lead to the pit of earth’s destruction,

                        You lead us on the path of resurrected life.

            As we cry in hunger for the bread of mercy,

                        You spread forth a table for our healing.

            We come to your table,

Your table of peace.

ALL: Amen. Amin. Ameyn.


Remembrance (Unison)

The life you freely gave us all fell from our grasping fingers,

Yet you sustained us in the slavery of our wanderings;

You led us through the desert to oases of your mercy.

In the exhortations of your prophets,

you lifted up your hope for us.

In the visions of your mystics,

you renewed a fire in our hearts for you.

In the life surrendered on a cross

you poured out a flood of your creative love.

In that life we find your peace;

At your table we receive the fruits of your abiding power.

Amen. Amin. Ameyn.


Posted in Roundtable Ministries Project, Worship and Spirituality | 1 Comment

Fetal Personhood?

The US Supreme Court’s reversal of its earlier ruling (Roe v. Wade) upholding women’s right to abortion, has intensified the argument that the fetus, from the moment of conception, is a “person” and should have appropriate standing in the law. I have been reflecting on the history and meaning of the word “person” for over fifty years. In 2012 I posted reflections on the way personhood was being used to give corporations (fictional persons) rights to political speech once attributed to individuals. Let me just rehearse some of what I said then in order to understand how the concept of personhood is now being extended to the fetus.

“Person” goes back to the Latin “persona,” the word for the mask that was worn in public dramas. The masks were shaped to amplify the speaker’s voice. Their words could “sound through” (“per-sonare”) the mask so they could perform their role in the drama. To “have a persona” was to be able to take part in a drama beyond the roles of ordinary life.

From that dramatic practice it could be used to talk about those who had speech not only in the world of drama but also in the law. To have a persona was to have the right to participate in the drama of legal proceedings as well as public life generally, constricted as it was in Roman times. Mainly, “person-hood” was confined to male heads of households.

From the legal world it then entered the language of theology.  It was Tertullian (2d century) who used it to apply to God’s presence in the world through the “persons” of Christ and the Holy Spirit. When it came time to develop the Trinitarian idea in the Latin church of the West, theologians came to speak of God being in three “persons.” This was how the Latin-speaking world translated the “hypostases” of Greek thought about the Trinitarian “instances” of God. (This is my interpretation of the Greek “hypostasis,” which is a very controverted matter itself.) In this way, people in the Latin West could talk about how God was participating in the drama of salvation that is human history. God had three “personae” constituting the divine life. The divergence between Greek concepts of “hypostasis” and Latin concepts of “persona” led to intense and abiding differences shaping the two Christian branches to this day.

Thus, as religion developed in the West it was God who had “person-ality.” So did the church, as the Body of Christ, who is the “second person” of the Trinity. As Christ’s “body,” the Church was also immortal, unlike the associations of human beings. It was a “mystical body” that was a bridge to life eternal. In this way, by the thirteenth century, the Church brought into being the idea that there could be a seemingly human institution that could transcend the mortality of the individuals composing it. (Incidentally, this is where our word “parson,” the representative of the Church, comes from.) At this point an entity that is seen as a “person” is now seen as a vital center of creative presence in the public drama of world history, that is, having divine origin. To have “personhood” is to participate in the divine autonomy and creativity of the Triune God.

In the thought of Protestant and radical reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the “person-hood” of Christ was then transmitted to believers through Baptism. They gain the right to appear in public as equals with a conscience. These conscientious individuals then form churches, which are associations of individual believers bound in covenant. This is the stream that feeds into American thought about freedom of conscience and association. To be a person went from being a participant in Christ’s body to being simply a human being created “in the image of God.” Over several centuries, this personhood, in law as well as theology, was extended to formerly enslaved people, now recognized as “persons,” and to women, whose “persona” had for centuries been borne by their fathers or husbands. All humans could now claim the divine attributes of a personhood that had evolved in the theological conception of the Divine. It became an attribute of human life as such.

At this point personhood was no longer the mask by which one participates in the larger drama of the law, but became the very life of the human being. On this basis some are claiming, as with the Platonic view I discussed last time, that from the moment of conception the fetus has the complete powers of the self created in the image of God. Such an argument is the outcome of a two-thousand year development of an idea that has moved from theater to law to theology and thence into biology. From the theater’s stage it moved to the heavens, from which it descended with all the powers of the divine into the microscopic assemblage of genetic material embodied in a single cell. Yes, it is a “religious” concept, but very few people understand how it has evolved to shape this particular argument about the right to abortion.

Americans are now faced with fierce and emotional arguments about the “rights” to be attributed to this fetal human as well as how it can be represented in the courts of law. Much of this argument will revolve around the question of whether this “person” has the capacities to act that can be called autonomous in some sense. In any case, “personhood” is a powerful rhetorical strategy drawing on centuries of cultural development. Awareness that “fetal personhood” is a theologically-inspired construct ought to help us sort out this legal, medical, religious, and deeply emotional controversy. Your own thoughts are always welcome here.



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