I Have Fears Like Everyone Else

The first reading begins. I start my way down from the choir loft. Even though it’s too tight around my needlessly thick neck, I button up my collar because I need to look prim when I’m cantoring. I walk down the left-side aisle waiting to hear “The word of the Lord—thanks be to God” so I can process to the middle, bow, and take the ambo for myself. I know exactly what I’m doing. Heck, “To You, O Lord” is so ingrained in my head that I could do the harmony by memory. And yet, despite all of this and against every plan I made, my heart is pounding so hard I can hear it, and I can’t even breath properly to calm down because of my stupid collar. All my entrances are good, but I know I don’t have enough breath to finish each line of text. Worst Case Scenario has started and I’m losing confidence the more I sing. My voice on the line “Keep me in the way of your truth” has gotten thinner and thinner until you can’t hear me singing “truth”. The psalm mercifully ends after the fourth refrain, and I meekly shuffle back to the choir loft trying not to make eye-contact with any of the parishioners.

This was just a few Sundays ago. The worst part is that that wasn’t even the first time I had cantored in front of this community. So many experiences in my life have trained me so that cantoring should be no issue. I did theater throughout high school, I’ve been singing since I was 13, lectoring since I was 14, took a public speaking class in 11th grade, and even did eight months of improv classes last year. But my nerves are involuntary. They don’t care how experienced I am at making sounds come out of my mouth in front of strangers. Stick me in front of a crowd, and I’m not going to have pleasant experience.

In case anyone doubted my experience, Here I am at 14 playing Samuel in Pirates of Penzance. Courtesy of Tom Peters.

I felt the same way the first time I had to present a witness talk during a junior retreat. I had written out my story. I thought it was a charming tale of life growing up with a twin brother who didn’t have any of the physical or cognitive disfunctions that I had (ADD, SPD, other fun abbreviations). There were jokes, a focused theme, and a good conclusion. I was certain this was a good talk on paper. Then, the morning I had to present, all I could think about was my talk and how I would screw up and embarrass myself in front of four dozen 16-year-olds from St. X. The talk went fine but that doesn’t change the fact that I was shaking and my stomach was upset by how anxious I was. In fact, I was so uneasy that what was supposed to be a funny story about an awkward kid learning to love the cross he bears turned into an intense tragedy about a disabled child running away from his family.

All of this begs the question, why do I keep being called to ministries that make me physically upset? The best answer I can give is that the more I do them, the better I get. I was never as nervous giving my witness talk as I was that first afternoon. And short of being thrown in front of an auditorium, I will never be that nervous again. In fact, I got to teach a group of students this same lesson on fear very recently.

We ran an all-school retreat just yesterday where I proctored a game called Jacob’s Ladder. In Jacob’s Ladder, two parallel lines of students face each other. Each of them is connected to the person across from them by a dowel rod they each hold. This forms the titular ladder. It is then the job of whoever volunteers to walk across the dowel rods. As long as everyone pays attention and follows instructions, everyone makes it across without fail. When the game ended, we had a discussion on the topic of fear. Being on the ladder is terrifying. Almost none of the students I was leading wanted to cross the ladder until they started seeing their peers succeed. The more people tried and succeed, the easier it was for them to face the task. As the discussion ended, I shared with them the story of Jesus calming the stormy sea. I ended the reading when Jesus said, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”

jacob's ladder
Jacob’s Ladder, done with proper technique.

For me, being vulnerable in front of strangers is the ladder I have to cross. But I will cross it and cross it until I no longer fear because I have faith that I will succeed. God sent me on this path and I have no reason to deviate.