Today we’re concluding our series called, “Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope.” Throughout this series, we’ve learned a little about how our brains are designed with a kind of alarm system, a “fight or flight” response to perceived dangers, that help keep us safe; and we’ve also learned that our imaginations, past experiences, or messages we’ve received over time can sometimes set off our fear response over something that hasn’t and probably won’t happen, or that we can get into a practice of catastrophizing, and letting our minds play out worst case scenarios as gospel truth. These types of fears are unhealthy in that they may keep us from experiencing peace, they may cause us to think or behave in unhealthy ways, and they may rob us of joy!
In the face of these fears, we’ve read scriptures that remind us that God is always with us, even in the midst of our fears. And that sometimes, like David facing Goliath, facing the thing we’re afraid of, with God’s help, can be a courageous step toward overcoming that fear. We’ve also reminded ourselves that we live in an era where the 24/7 media cycle and year-round political pundits have learned that fear is the most convincing tactic to sell their news or win your vote. So they convince us to be fearful of violence and crime, when we’re actually living in one of the safest periods of human history. And they convince us that our differences are dangerous, which preys of our fears of others. But we were reminded that in the gospel, Jesus was recorded spending time with those who were feared and marginalized by religion and society and that Jesus gave a startling interpretation of God’s commandment to love not only your neighbor, but also your enemy. We also spent some time talking about the way our fears, especially those based on thinking the worst about ourselves, or others, can sometimes lead us to withdraw from others, leaving us isolated and lonely. But that the best way for overcoming these fears is to dwell on God’s unconditional love for us, and to hold those negative thoughts under the loving gaze of God until we can trust in a loving relationship with God, which can lead us to trust opening ourselves to being in relationships with others. Last week we learned that sometimes our fears can weigh us down, or hold us back from finding meaning and purpose in life, or from following God’s call on our life. Like Moses, there are times when we’d rather take the path of least resistance. And we heard that for many of our young people today, there is such a fear of failing, not fitting in, or of being only average, that the pressure can become debilitating. But that God reminds us to be strong and courageous because God will be with us whatever we do, and wherever we go.
Today, we’re going to deal with one more of our common fears, and that is the fear of change. You’ve probably heard some of these sayings about change: “The only thing that is constant is change.” “If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.” (Gail Sheehy) “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (James Baldwin) Sometimes change can be exciting, like looking forward to a promotion at work or getting out of your comfort zone to taste new foods, or experience new cultures. But it’s probably safe to say that for some reason, most of us humans don’t like change very much! Psychologists say that it’s because those complex brains of ours have a need to know – that we are hardwired to resist uncertainty, and that our brains actually prefer a predictable negative outcome over any uncertain one. In other words, there’s a reason why some people stay in jobs or other situations that make them miserable instead of looking for something better; it’s that old saying, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” But the good news is that our brains are also flexible adaptable – they can be trained to thrive even in the midst of change.
So what are you most afraid of changing right now? You could fear a new aspect of your job or academic career… You could fear a change in your living environment… You could fear a change in one of your relationships… You could even fear a change in your health – one that could change your quality of life, or one that could mean the end of life. Sometimes, giving in to the fear of change means watching a business or relationship come to an end, or missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime. These are the kind of fears that can cause us to miss out on the joys of life lived right now.
So, remember I told you that in college, I hit a point in which I had gone right past fear of failure to full-blown failure. I had hit rock bottom and needed help putting my life back together. I knew the life I was currently living was taking me down a road I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t know how to change course; I was afraid of what that change might look like. For a period of time, I met with a campus counselor I could talk to about some of those negative messages and fears that were swirling around in my mind, in order to figure out how to change them. During that time, she suggested that I also participate in a type of group therapy that used the 12 steps of recovery as a means of helping people learn to deal with life on life’s terms. One of the things I heard in those group meetings was that a lot of people seemed to be stuck in a messy life, but they were terrified of doing life any differently. And so, one of the first steps that each of us had to take was to be able to admit that we were already powerless over our lives, and that our lives had become unmanageable. For most of us, that was an easy one. Next, we were asked to believe or trust in a power greater than ourselves that could restore our lives. To me, I remember feeling like that was wishful thinking, at first. But as I listened to other people describe the differences in their lives since they were able to put their faith in God, I slowly came to believe as well. And I was there for restoration, to put my life back together. That’s what I wanted. But the next part was the hardest. Step 3 says, we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him. Turning over our will and our lives; letting go; ready to change… It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And also, without a doubt, the best!
But – I didn’t do it on my own. First, I came to believe that a power greater than myself couldrestore me. I was finally willing to let go of the only way of life I knew because I was ready to accept that there was Another who was ready to catch me, and to pick up the pieces, and show me something better. When Jesus addressed the crowds to tell them not to worry, it wasn’t just a cliché saying, like, “Don’t worry; be happy!” He reminded them that God, the Creator is so in tuned with what each of us needs, that once we tune our wills and lives to the care of God, we will have what we need. He then tells them, “Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” In other words, live in the present moment. Be in tune with God’s will for right now, and surrender your worry, your imagination, your catastrophizing, your negative messaging, and dwell on God’s presence. “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Mindfulness is a wonderful practice that can help train our brains to accept the reality of what is, instead of dwelling on the 'what if’s' and 'could be’s.' In the book we’ve been using for the basis of this series, United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton describes it this way:
“So much of the anxiety we experience is a product of bringing the future into the present….We think about what could happen, what might happen. It is like cramming all of this future experience into the present. We don’t allow ourselves any time in the present to feel freedom or joy or to engage meaningfully in our relationships. As a consequence of that we feel anxious, we feel worried, we feel fear. The formal practice of mindfulness is geared toward allowing us to push away the depression or sadness from ruminating on the past, and the worry, fear, and anxiety from thinking about the future, and instead allows us to be engaged in the present moment.” (Hamilton, Adam. Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times. The Crown Publishing Group.)
He goes on to explain that there are also breathing techniques that can help us live in the present. When we get anxious, our breathing becomes shallow and our oxygen intake decreases, which increases our feelings of discomfort or fear about some unpleasant future. Slowing down to breathe not only improves our oxygen intake, but it helps us to become mindful of the present moment. We’re going to try a technique called four-sided breathing, or square breathing. You can stop at any point in the day and try this little exercise: • Breathe in slowly counting to four. • Hold your breath to the count of four. • Exhale slowly, counting to four as you exhale. • Hold the exhale, lungs empty, to the count of four.
Doing this slows down your breathing. It relaxes your body and focuses your mind on the present moment rather than on a fearful future. It is easy to add meditation and prayer to this practice. You can give thanks or recite encouraging scriptures, like God’s promise we encountered earlier in the series: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” Breath prayer, praying one phrase on the inhale, and another on the exhale, is another way of both slowing our breathing and dwelling on God’s promises. You could try phrases from scriptures such as, “The Lord is my Shepherd – I shall not want.” Or “Be still and know – that I am God.” Both of these are ways of seeking, or dwelling on God’s care, and turning your will over to God, so that you can dwell in the truth of now, instead of fearing a future that isn’t here.
For many of us, the change we may fear most is that of aging or dying. It’s a future that is a reality for all of us. Over a year ago, my dad starting having a series of health complications that led to one surgery after another, causing a prolonged hospital stay. And at one point, even though the doctors were confident about his physical progress, my mother noticed his mood changing and realized that he had become so worried about all of the things that could still go wrong, that he had given up on living in the now. He later admitted to my sisters and I that there were a few days when he thought they were his last. You see, my dad was making a huge transition in his life at that time. He had just turned 70, and had made the decision to retire that year. Then, when he experienced a health problem his fears took over. Looking back now, he can see how he let his worries control him. But that doesn’t have to be the case. As we age, as we experience health problems and illnesses, and even as we inevitably face death, we can remember that God is walking with us, that God will never leave us or forsake us, and that God gives us courage and strength.
In Pastor Adam’s book, he recounts the stories of three of his church members, all of whom were facing death because of terminal illnesses. One, a woman who suffered from a debilitating terminal illness that made it difficult for her to speak or move found that the act of praying for each person she encountered in her care center during her final months gave meaning and purpose for life again as she counted each new day a gift from God. She shared with Pastor Adam that she had comfort knowing that after her days on earth, she would be safe in God’s arms. Another was a man named Scott who was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 34. Pastor Adam says, “Scott told me that when he was first diagnosed, he felt his whole world was crumbling. He was angry and afraid, and he wanted to know ‘Why me?’ But soon, he said, ‘I realized that wasn’t going to help anything. I could spend all my time focused on the disease and my disappointment, or I could choose to focus on the things I loved, on the good things—the blessings.’ [His wife] noted, ‘We lived with the motto Live for the now, not putting things off because we didn’t know how much time we had.’” (Hamilton, Adam. Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times. The Crown Publishing Group.) Together with his wife and family, this young man has learned to take life one day at a time, focusing on life in the now, and thanking God for the blessings that come with each new day. The third was a man named Allen, a fellow United Methodist Pastor in the Kansas City Area who, at age 38 is fighting a battle with leukemia. He asked Allen if he’d be willing to share about the fears that he has been dealing with in the face of his illness. Allen shared that there were three main fears he had: the fear of death, the fear of pain, and the fear for his family. He explained that he was afraid not only about the emotional impact his death would have on his parents and his wife, Ashley, but also about mundane things like how his wife would deal with their finances after his death. To deal with his fears, he chose to attack these anxieties with action, such as taking care of his estate and funeral plans, instead of leaving them for his wife; he had conversations with his doctor about his fear of pain, so that he and his doctors could agree on a plan; and he says as for the fear of death itself, his faith has taught him that the last thing is not the worst thing. He has learned to face his fears with faith, releasing his worries and cares to God. And he says that among the things that had brought him peace were prayer and meditation. “He told Pastor Adam, “I have not set aside time to pray—my entire existence is becoming an ongoing prayer, a conversation and togetherness with God that has resulted in a peace that continues to grow.”
Pastor Adam ends this section of his book by writing, “It is remarkable to be in the company of people of deep faith, who, like the apostle, are persuaded that death is not the end of their story. They may still feel the physical and emotional fear that originates in the amygdala, but they are not controlled by that fear. They are, as I’ve used the word throughout this book, unafraid.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 says, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” Those of us who believe that Jesus Christ was himself God in the flesh, and came to show us a perfect love that casts out fear, who believe that even though Jesus was put to death on a cross, his resurrection conquered death and separation from God once and for all, then we have God’s power to face life – and death – with courage and hope. The same God who created light from darkness shines in our lives today, hiding treasure in earthly vessels, and promising all of us an eternal weight of glory beyond measure. Thanks be to God!
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles shocked the world last year when he outdueled Tom Brady and led his team to a stunning victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII (52). Foles was thrust into a leadership role after the star Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was injured just weeks before the playoffs. Before that, Foles had languished in backup roles in Kansas City and St. Louis. He even contemplated retirement at age 26 before giving football another shot. A reporter asked Foles what he wanted fans to take away from his journey, and his answer is a great lesson on embracing failure:
"I think the big thing is don't be afraid to fail. In our society today — you know, Instagram, Twitter, it's a highlight reel. It's all the good things. And then when you look at it, you think, like, wow, when you have a rough day or your life's not as good as that, you're failing. Failure is a part of life. It’s part of building character and growing. Without failure, who would you be? I wouldn't be up here if I hadn't fallen thousands of times, made mistakes. We all are human. We all have weaknesses. Just be able to share that and be transparent. I know when I listen to people speak and they share their weaknesses, I'm listening. Because I can (relate). So I'm not perfect, I'm not Superman. We might be in the NFL and we might have just won the Super Bowl, but we all have daily struggles. I still have daily struggles. That's where my faith comes in. That's where my family comes in.” (quoted in ftw.usatoday.com)
So on this Super Bowl Sunday, a year after that inspirational speech, we’re going to be considering our own fears of failure, our fears of disappointing ourselves, or others, or even God. As we’ve mentioned over the past few weeks, God created us with these wonderfully complex brains, complete with the ability to alert us to actual danger, sometimes before we can mentally process the situation or physically react. And that’s a good thing, it is meant to keep us safe. But our wonderfully complex brains also have a wonderful imagination that can run away with us over things that have not, and likely will not happen. This is unhealthy fear, and it can keep us from making friends or taking risks, and can sometimes even cause us to behave in a way that is harmful to ourselves or others.
To continue our sports anecdotes for a moment, Michael Jordan, considered one of the best professional basketball players ever, filmed a commercial for Nike where he admitted, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot…and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Wayne Gretzky, leading scorer for the NHL and considered the greatest hockey player ever, famously said, “Only one thing is ever guaranteed, that is that you will definitely not achieve the goal if you don’t take the shot. You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”
For those of you who couldn’t care less about sports, I’m not leaving you out… J. K. Rowling, author of the wildly popular and beloved children’s book series, Harry Potter, has said, “By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.” After conceiving the idea for the books, Rowling’s mother died, her marriage ended, and she was left to raise a baby with no job and no family. After struggling with depression, poverty, and numerous setbacks, she eventually finished her first novel, only to be rejected over a dozen times. Her first publication even came with a warning to “get a day job,” because no one thought she could make a living as a children’s writer. But she proved them by becoming one of the best-selling authors of all times! According to Rowling herself, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.”
So, what about you? Do you ever fear failure? What kind of impending personal defeat keeps you awake at night? In the past, when the voice in your head said that you should give up, what did you do? Did you take the risk and keep going, or turn back while you still could?
This past fall, we read through the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. One of the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons, he was the grandson of Isaac and great-grandson of Abraham, to whom God made a promise that if Abraham would pack up everything and trust God, God would lead his family to new land, Canaan, the Promised Land. And God promised to be their God; in return, Abraham promised that his family would be faithful to God. This blessing, or promise was handed down from generation to generation. But remember that at the end of our story of Joseph, his family and all of Abraham’s descendants had been given land in Egypt to come and live in order to escape the seven-year famine that was devastating their land in Canaan.
Fast-forward about 400 years, and the Israelites are no longer guests, but slaves in the land of Egypt. And there grew to be so many Hebrew people that the Pharaoh, who worried about a possible revolt, began having their male children killed. One child named Moses, however, was hidden in the very waters where the Pharaoh’s daughter would be sure to find him, and she raised him as her own. As an adult, Moses begins to feel conflicted about living as a prince while his people are suffering. And you may know the rest of the story – he sees a fellow Hebrew being mistreated by an Egyptian, he gets mad and kills the Egyptian, but hides him, then gets caught, then flees to the hillsides of Midian and becomes a shepherd for about 40 years until one day, God calls to Moses from a burning bush and says, “I have heard the cry of my people who are oppressed in Egypt, and I’m going to rescue them and bring them out of Egypt to a land that is flowing with mild and honey. So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to tell him to let my people go.” So Moses argues with God, and makes excuse after excuse about why he is not the right person for the job. God assures and reassures him that God will be with him, but Moses is consumed with fear, and finally just cuts to the chase, “Please God, just send someone else.” Can you imagine God calling you out of a burning bush, and telling you that out of all the other people on the planet, YOU’re the one person I have chosen for the job. You’re the exact right person for this plan I have, but don’t worry, I’ll be with you!
I’ve shared with you that it took me many years to believe what I thought God was calling me to do when I began to feel a call to pastoral ministry. I still had a lot of those tapes playing in my head that we’ve talked about in this series. Those voices or messages from my childhood, from the church I grew up in, and from the culture I lived in that made me believe I wasn’t the right person for the job – because of my gender, because of my age, because of my past. I let those false messages get tangled up with my imagination, and it made me afraid. So I took the long road; instead of jumping all in, I tried a year-long Bible study, and then a three-year school for lay ministry, and then I stepped into more leadership roles in ministries in addition to the worship ministry I was leading, and finally, after eight years, I heard more and more of God’s voice of assurance and less and less of those voices and messages that had held me back with fear. Sometimes, instead of saying “no” outright, try a “maybe.” And then engage in prayer and other spiritual practices until you can hear can claim for yourself God’s “yes.”
Last week, we talked about our fear of loneliness and how it can sometimes lead to even more isolation. And we talked about how those between the ages of 11 and 25 are the loneliest generations in American history. There are many things that I think this generation is struggling with today that none of us in previous generations had to deal with; but I’ve noticed that in addition to technology that seems to interfere with personal connections, they also seem to be struggling with unrealistic expectations.
My 18-year-old daughter was willing to share some of her own thoughts about the fears that she and her peers struggle with today. She says that she feels a lot of pressure to not only succeed in her academic work or extra-curricular activities, but to excel! She thinks that there is an unspoken expectation for young people her age to do everything perfectly, so they are chronically worried about making mistakes, or being average. She also says that there is just as much social pressure to meet expectations of others. She explains that there seems to always be a standard of excellence set by the most popular group of peers, and that it is not okay to stand out or be different than the standard that everyone expects. So that leads to an increasing need to change who you are in order to fit in, and a fear that if you are too different, too vulnerable or too much "yourself" that you won't be accepted by your peers.
She also gave me permission to share that in her own life, these pressures led to anxiety, depression, a significant change in sleep, and such a paralyzing fear of failing in school that she began to avoid homework and assignments to the point that she almost did fail. Based on the conversations I've had with other parents, I know that she is not alone.
I asked her what she most wanted us - the parents, grandparents and members of this faith community - to know about how we can be a source of encouragement and strength for young people. She says the first thing is just to show empathy. She says it helps just to know that there are adults who will say they care about you, even when it feels like you are disappointing them. She also says that young people are already very aware of the ways they are failing, so they don't need more people telling them they are messing up. Instead, she says they need to hear that they are not alone, and that they are still loved in spite of whatever mistakes or struggles they are dealing with.
I think that we as the church can certainly find ways to show empathy and encouragement to the young people in our midst! And as I said a few weeks ago, all those who are present in our community of faith - including the children and youth - are not the church of tomorrow... they are the church of today! One of the great gifts of a faith community is that we can come together as people of all ages who are all on the same journey together. Some of us may be farther along in our life journey but not as far along in our faith journey, or vice versa. But we have the blessing of finding relationships and courage when we share our experiences with one another.
You know, Moses eventually did say Yes to God, and went on to become one of the greatest faith leaders of all time! And he had a hand in raising up the next generation of leaders. Joshua had the role of leading the people into Canaan after Moses died. And as he and the Israelites were camped out on the banks of the Jordan river just across from the Promised land, they were very much aware that the people on the other side were much stronger and better protected than their rag-tag army. But in their moment of fear, we read these words, “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, '… As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you… Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.'" (Joshua 1:1, 5b, 9b)
Be strong and courageous. The Lord your God is with you wherever you go. We all need to be reminded of these words. We have such a great opportunity to be encouragers to one another. I’ll leave you today with one other quote. The apostle Paul also felt a need to help raise up the next generation of faith leaders, and he wrote to a young disciple named Timothy, “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7) This is good news for all of us, and even better news for those outside these walls today, who are living in fear. So who will go tell them? Maybe God is calling you….