Letting Go of Performance Anxiety
Yesterday my daughter was at a birthday party for a friend. The invitation was decorated with balloons and a piñata, confetti and color. And there was a note from the girl’s parents requesting that we don’t bring a gift. I’m noticing this trend more in circles where children already have plenty, and I’m starting to see the appeal myself. Over the years, our kiddo has amassed no small amount of figurines and baubles, legos and craft supplies. She enjoys them…for a while…until the next new treasure comes along. Somehow we’ve allowed it to get to a place where she has so many toys, that nearly none of them actually hold value to her anymore. She tires of them quickly and seeks novelty over something she might truly hold dear in any enduring way. And I can’t really point the finger. I do the same thing with my thrift store finds. And we all live in the same single-use society addicted to the disposable.
In this part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, in his preaching and teaching to a wide community of all different kinds of listeners with all different kinds of religious backgrounds...the words of “consuming, heaping, and hoarding,” turns to “broken, rusted, and ruined.” Ironically, treating things in a preservationist way, trying to keep them perfect and private, actually destroys them and makes them disfigured/distorted. Things of beauty and joy are turned to obligation and pride.
This isn’t a “woe to you who have stuff” sermon, because excess comes in many forms. Our treasures take on many shapes. We treasure not just our money but our energy. We value our public persona and how we are thought of by others. We put our trust in ourselves above all else. And maybe you don’t expect a preacher to say this, but I think we should. We should care about and tend to all these treasures. But we should also be mindful of how much weight we give them to dictate our lives and our identity. Jesus stops the car so we can get out for a second and look around and wonder what those treasures are really about, wonder why we have the habits we do, and evaluate if they really embody what we hope.
I want to invite you to take a moment, take a few deep breaths, and reflect to yourself: What do you spend our time on? Look back at today or yesterday, and moment by moment, hour by hour, what did you spend your time doing? What do you invest your energy in? Not just what we ideally spend our time and energy and treasure on, but actually in reality.
Are you putting more stock in appearances or substance? Appearances and our public expression matter, but is maintaining that side of the equation so consuming that it forces you to sacrifice substance? Do you worry more about crafting a pleasing personality or the illusion that everything is fine… OR the kind of relationship with yourself and others that can handle both the joy and the grit of life? Do you dwell in drama or in depth? This isn’t a “woe to you who do frivolous things” sermon, because frivolity is needed on occasion. But it is an invitation to think about what we do and why, even the things that seem positive from the outside. Is it from the heart or what we think we SHOULD do?
Jesus seems to point out that what we think we SHOULD spend our time one can be just as distracting as anything else. As religious folk, we can get caught up thinking we don’t pray as well as others or we’re not as good at faith as we should be, but God does not desire long-winded prayers or eloquent fluffy speech or ritual of any kind for their own sake. In Jesus’ time, the thinking was that a good prayer should go on and on or a good person should spend extensive amounts of time in prayer. I think we still kinda think that But when it’s not from the heart, it’s still just fluff. It reminds me of when I had to write papers for school and I was still several hundred words short of what the teacher told us we had to write, so I’d just start adding adjectives in random places, or repeating the same ideas in ever-so-slightly different ways. But doing so didn’t add any real content to anything, because it came from a place where it was something I was told I HAD to do.
Jesus shows how being in relationship with God can be simple, without all the trappings of performance. There are so many places in our lives where we feel like we have to perform, being this or that in order to be accepted or valued. God knows, that I’m constantly burdened by the voices in my head, question, “am I doing this mom thing right? Am I juggling all of life with the grace an poise expected of me by culture?” And Jesus says, that’s not the way it is with God. God invites us to simplicity not because “less is more” is a pleasing design aesthetic, but because God doesn’t need all the extra fluff from us in order to love us. We don’t have to turn simplicity into one more obligation or idol (which happens), but we are freed from all SHOULD’s that someone told us we had to be and do in order to be loved. If God’s love and grace becomes one more thing to do or perform or hoard, then our heart gets hardened toward what is offered as a gift. But when we live into that simple truth of God’s unconditional love for us, we also see greater health in our heart and our souls. Jesus tells us we don’t need all the clutter and it’s not good for us anyway.
Science has shown that clutter causes stress, being surrounded by an excess of things makes us anxious. But I think we can follow the same reasoning to extend beyond our things and into our whole lives. They are often cluttered with the constant need to perform or put on a good face, or the right face, filling up our schedules until we frantically fear the loss of time or that our time will be stolen from us, even a few minutes. But God loves us and cares for us without the fuss we put on, without our having secured it and locked it away for safe-keeping.
Jesus gives us a tool to remind us, to find our center when we get distracted, to bring us back to basics. Jesus gives us a prayer that reflects God’s intimate care and astounding glory. The prayer Jesus gives doesn’t need to be a script, but a model. Bold and simple. It’s bold in the way we are empowered to claim intimacy and familiarity with the creator of the cosmos by relating to them as family. It is simple in that it doesn’t try to capture everything at once – it is simply a petition for God’s will to be done, for basic needs like food, for relationship through forgiveness, and for safety. This is one way for our hearts to be nurtured and for us to find healing and hope with God alongside us. But it’s not the only way to pray nor even the best way to pray, but it is a good way.
Perhaps when we find ourselves in need of grounding, when we’re overrun with stimuli or too many options or we’re fatigued from fussing, or we discover we’re losing a bit of ourselves in the performance of life or faith...this prayer or another practice of simplicity and boldness, can provide us with a place where we can clear away all the extra BS, bear our true selves and our true heart before God, and know that we are deeply loved just as we are. And knowing that, experiencing that...deep in our bones...changes that way we relate to ourselves and to others and to our stuff. It shows us a fullness of life that all the fluff could never deliver. May this moment of worship be a time and space where you can put down the facades and the defenses and experience the liberating truth of Christ, which is this: God hears you, God knows you, God sees you, God wants you, God loves you...right here, right now, just as you are. Amen.