Faith Works 10-20-12
Speaking in public, dying, and other hazards of ministry
You've probably heard that for most Americans, according to surveys (and they're always right, aren't they?), death is preferable to having to speak in public.
Is this really what people say? Maybe so. I've been at meetings where the darndest people didn't speak, and the dad-drattedest people did.
In just a few more Sunday afternoons, I will have yet again the honor, for the fifth time (fifth time!), to walk out onto the stage of The Midland Theatre and be the master of ceremonies for the annual Coalition of Care Gospel Concert.
Another great lineup of college and church choirs, quartets, and soloists is being brought together by the desire of local faith communities to work together, to meet needs of those who need assistance with the necessities of life like rent and utilities and transportation. (Tickets are just $20 or $15 for a full program of joyful voices.)
So Sunday November 4th, in downtown Newark at 4:00 pm, I will walk out in front of a few hundred of my closest friends and talk and read and sing. Since I'm a pastor, this is no strange thing, right?
Welllllll . . . there's a story here. And it goes back to John Dean. You recall the Watergate fellow, the former White House counsel? In 1981 he was speaking at my university, in a vast cavernous hall built off of the blueprints of Radio City in NY, seating 6,000 when filled but leaving only a few thousand to rattle around inside like change in a pocket.
For years I had known all too well that if I went to an event where questions could be asked, and if I raised my hand and had even a few moments to wait expectantly for my turn to speak, things would not go well for me. My face would flush, my heart would race, and the world would start to spin. When I say "my heart would race," I mean something in the Formula One division, with a pounding in my ears like Gene Krupa or Keith Moon, and a shortness of breath that I was decades away from associating with heart attack. The longer I had to wait, knowing I would have to speak in front of a group, whether the size was a couple dozen, or a few thousand, the harder and faster my heart would pound. It was, to put not to fine a point on it, terrifying, and the smart man would just pull his hand down, back away from the microphone, and go back to his seat, where the symptoms would recede as quickly as they arose.
But I had a question, darn it, and when was I going to get to ask it of this fellow ever again? There was a certain insistence to my wish to hear what John Dean had to say in response to my particular question, and the fact that not long before I'd been through some fun and games with the United States Marine Corps, and I ended up saying to myself "Your heart is NOT going to beat itself out of your chest, and you can just stand here and be terrified, and still speak your piece."
And I did. In fact, I got invited to join Mr. Dean backstage in the green room afterwards, and spoke to him for quite some time, and received some wise counsel that has stood me in good stead for lo these many years, but that's a whole 'nother column.
But my point, such that I have one, is that it was only years later that I realized I was having panic attacks. In fact, I still often have them. And I am thankful that mine are mild, and manageable, and that I was able to get past them. But they've never gone away.
As I work with our local mental health service providers these days, it occurs to me that there are many folks who experience, even just on facing walking out the door of their house, a physical and mental experience akin to what I felt in class and in lecture halls and in the Elliott Hall of Music. And for some it's stronger, more debilitating, and they need to know it's not weakness, not just fear (which we all have from time to time), and it's okay to ask for help from others.
In fact, even a preacher can feel it on a Sunday morning, or afternoon, and we do. You even start to enjoy it, but the anxiety never quite goes away. But it's amazing what a prayer and a song can do to dispel the terrors.
"Tell Me Why" is especially effective.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; yes, he has panic attacks from time to time, but it makes sense at the time. Tell him your crazy anxieties at email@example.com.