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….
Psalm 139:1-10 Lord, you have examined me. You know me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I stand up. Even from far away, you comprehend my plans. 3 You study my traveling and resting. You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways. 4 There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord, that you don’t already know completely. 5 You surround me—front and back. You put your hand on me. 6 That kind of knowledge is too much for me; it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it. 7 Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence? 8 If I went up to heaven, you would be there. If I went down to the grave, you would be there too! 9 If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean-- 10 even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
John 13:31-35 31 When Judas was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Human One has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33 Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’ 34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
We’re in the midst of a winter worship series about the most common fears experienced by Americans today. And we’re calling this series “UN-afraid: Living with Courage and Hope” because even though we all experience fear and worry and anxiety, we don’t have to let that fear control us or rob us of joy. We’ve been using Pastor Adam Hamilton’s book by the same title as a guide because in this book, Pastor Adam gives a summary of research and therapeutic methods used in the mental health and care community to help people address these fears, as well as a wealth of insight about how God’s Word and spiritual practices can enhance these suggestions for helping us take our lives back and live in hope. So we’ve learned already that our brains have the ability to imagine or catastrophize fears and worries, which can make the fears appear bigger than they actually are. We learned one acronym for FEAR which is False Events Appearing Real. Last week we talked about how sometimes those fears may be projected onto other people, which can lead us to sometimes make wrong decisions about how we characterize or even treat people. And as we’ll hear again today, God’s purpose in creating us was to love others – all others, even those we might consider as enemies. But today instead of focusing on fears of others, we’re going to be focusing on a fear that researchers in the U.S. and Great Britain have called an epidemic. And that is the fear of loneliness.
I think probably all of us at some point have felt lonely. You can even be in the midst of a crowd, and not really know anyone and end up feeling alone in a room full of people. And there’s also the likelihood that at times most of us have been alone and have enjoyed moments of solitude – having the house to ourselves for the first time, or sitting by the lake or being out on the golf course and felt good about the moments you had to yourself. So we can be alone, and not necessarily feel lonely. And solitude can be good for us from time to time. Sometimes it is only when we still ourselves and quiet all other voices, including our own, that we begin to feel the presence of God. So solitude can be a good thing. But we also need community and connection; we were created for relationships.
If you’ve ever done a Bible study on the book of Genesis, you know that there are two versions of the creation story. In the first version, it takes you through each of the seven days of creation, and at the end of each day, God calls everything good. And after the sixth day, when God saw everything God had created, God called it supremely good. In the second version, after a description of the plants and animals and rivers and the garden of Eden, God creates the first human. And for the first time, God says something is not good. Chapter 2, verses 15 & 18 tell us, “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.… Then the Lord God said, ‘It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.’” So God created another human; we might call it the new and improved “Human 2.0” version! And even though this passage is used a lot in wedding ceremonies, that’s not the whole picture here. God looked at the solitary human and said it is not good to be alone; humans need companionship; humans need a way to be in relationship with other humans the way that God the Trinity – Creator, Son and Holy Spirit – are able to be in relationship. Our relationship with others is meant to mirror this perfect love, this agape love that we explored last week, that only seeks to give and to bless.
So, what happens then, when we humans don’t have that relationship with another. And I’m not talking about marriage or dating relationships here, I’m talking about any meaningful relationship with another – with a friend, coworker, relative, or partner. What happens when our imaginations get involved in those times when we feel lonely and we find ourselves catastrophizing about why no one likes us, or we tell ourselves that because we’re alone now we’ll never have meaningful relationships again, or we’ll spend the rest of our lives alone. And so we may begin to withdraw from public gatherings in order to protect ourselves. But this prevents us from finding connection, and soon this leads to a feeling of chronic loneliness, This is the epidemic that more and more mental health professional are reporting that they are dealing with in their teen and adult clients and patients. Did you know that loneliness impairs immune response and makes people more likely to develop serious medical problems like heart disease and stroke? According to one study, loneliness increases the risk of early death as much as smoking or being 100 pounds overweight. So, why is this becoming an epidemic?
For one thing, the world is a lot different than it was 100 years ago. Back then, the average American spent their entire lives in the same community into which they were born. Now, the average American will move approximately 11.7 times in their lifetime. Imagine putting down roots, only to be forced to relocate every 10 to 12 years.. it would be difficult, but not impossible to sustain those relationships. This, by the way, is one reason why Neighboring is so important! If we don’t make the effort to get to know those who move in near us, imagine how lonely they might feel! It also used to be that the average American would hold at most 2 to 3 jobs in their lifetime. Now, millennials are begin told that in order to stay on top of their game, they should expect to change jobs about every 3 years. Imagine the impact that would have on forming any meaningful relationships with colleagues, if you know that you’re not going to be around long enough for those relationships to grow, or you’re not going to physically see each other after a few years.
We know that the incidences of divorce have increased in America, and sometimes that means severing ties with friends and relatives, which can lead to feelings of loss and loneliness. And then there’s retirement which can be another reason that relationships are lost. You’ve worked so many years with a particular group of people, but when you don’t see each other every day you begin to lose touch. Or you’re finally free to move to a sunnier climate, either permanently or for part of the year, and you don’t know anyone there. Or you pick up and move across the country to be closer to your children and grandchildren, and you leave behind your best friends. A study recently revealed that the greatest indication of happiness in retirement is not your bank account, or investments or 401K – it’s not how many days you can spend in the sun or on the golf course – it’s actually how many meaningful relationships you have after retirement. So maybe, in addition to investing our money for retirement, we also ought to be investing in our relationships so that when we retire we’re able to stay connected, or we know how to invest and build up new relationships.
There’s one more leading cause of loneliness today, especially with younger generations, and that is technology. You might think that with all the technology at our hands, that we would be more connected today than at any point in human history. But what happens when you’re looking at the things your friends are posting on Facebook or Instagram, which make it seem like they are living the fairy-tale life, and you’re over here with dishes and laundry to do, and you missed another day at the gym, and your real life looks nothing like that? We start comparing our life to this distorted version on Facebook and we start thinking there’s something wrong with us. And what happens when text messages and emoticons start taking the place of physical communication. Instead of being able to see one another’s actual facial expressions, or hold a hand, or give a hug, we’re just staring at a screen and putting our entire self-worth on the line, which is completely dependent on the time it takes for someone to reply to us or like our status. Studies show that those who are between 11 and 25 are actually the most vulnerable to this chronic loneliness, and instead of being the most connected generation, they have become the most isolated generation.
So, what are some of the ways that the therapeutic community suggest we can deal with these fears of isolation and loneliness. To begin with, they’re going to try to help you uncover the root cause for these feelings. We’ve just listed many of these. Something from your childhood – parent divorce, being left alone for much of the time during your formative years, or the loss of a parent or grandparent. Or it could be something you were told a lot as a child, either from classmates or family members: you’re too fat, you’re dumb, no one wants to be around you, no one likes you. Even without subconsciously realizing it, when something like this happens to us in our childhood, our minds either latch onto words, or put words into our minds that tell us our worst fears about being alone. Therapists sometimes refer to these as the tapes that play over and over in our mind, and that lead us to assume the worst, to catastrophize about why we’re lonely. So a therapist can help us realize where these fears originate and the, they can help us confront our assumptions about others by helping us realize the filters through with we see events. Maybe that person that didn’t return your call or email was actually busy with something in their life that day, or that person that didn’t return your wave may not have seen you because they were thinking about a conversation they just had with their boss. The next thing they may do is help you make a plan for reengaging with others. They may ask, what groups are you involved in. Are there organizations in the community that you can get involved in that relate to an interest or passion or volunteer opportunity? They will encourage you to get out of your house, to get out of yourself, and to get connected to people – the very thing you may be avoiding.
We also want to know what help we can find for these fears in the scriptures and spiritual practices of our faith. We’ve already seen that from the beginning of creation, God intends for us to be in relationship. And I believe God has given us two very clear ways to do this; one is through the Church, and the other is Godself – through our personal relationship with Jesus, our relationship with our Creator, our relationship/our communing with the Holy Spirit.
Let’s talk about Church first. By church, I don’t mean the hour of worship on Sunday mornings, or the building where we meet. I mean the community of faith tasked with loving one another. The letters of Paul and James in the New Testament are full of instructions for how to live together in community. The Church, formed by God’s Holy Spirit, is the body of Christ in the world. We are formed as a people to live out the same inclusive love and compassion that Jesus showed us in his own life, especially to those whom the religious practices of his day excluded – the poor, the sick, the women and children, the widowed and orphaned. Remember that the Jewish temple had sections where only certain people were allowed. And there were laws about ritual purity that developed into stigmas such that whole people groups began to be excluded and shunned from the community. But Jesus touched and healed the ‘unclean’ and the marginalized and those no one else would associate with. And that is our task as the Church. To reach out to the lonely, the left-out, the shunned, the shamed, the have-nots, and to show them love and compassion and bring them back into relationship with the Beloved Community and with Christ. Jesus said,
“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35)
I’ve spoken before about how meaningful it was for me, after being hurt and disillusioned by a distorted understanding of God and church to finally find a faith community as an adult that was open and accepting of me, a sinner. To allow me to bring my hurt and brokenness and doubts about God and just love on me until I believed in God’s love for myself. Some of these same studies I’ve mentioned about the epidemic of loneliness today have also looked at those who don’t seem to have these struggles, and they found that people who are connected to a faith community are less likely to struggle with chronic loneliness, because of the increase of emotional support. So let me ask you, how are you getting connected to other members of this faith community? We’ve tried a variety of small groups in the six months that I’ve been here, and we haven’t had enough participants to gain any traction. But small groups are where relationships are formed. You can sit side by side in worship with the same group of people for 50 years and never develop a relationship that goes beyond public niceties. So I want to encourage you to look for opportunities to connect with a small group. There’s a Sunday morning group that meets weekly, there are some new opportunities listed in your bulletin for getting together at least monthly. And beginning in Lent, I’m going to be looking for 12 individuals to join me in an in-depth Bible study.
It’s also important to note that the research on loneliness points out that not all expressions of faith produces positive outcomes. Worshiping alone and believing in an angry and vengeful God were two of the factors of faith that can actually contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation. So the Church has an important responsibility to be communities of welcoming and compassionate connection. One of the ways we can do that is by looking for those who walk in here already feeling lonely, or those who are here for the first time. So, will you help me with that? Will you make sure that they are more than greeted, but that they are welcomed? That means engaging in conversation while also respecting boundaries. That means exchanging contact information and inviting them for coffee or lunch. As a Church, we are tasked with the responsibility of creating authentic expressions of welcome, compassion and care, so let’s all commit to looking for ways we can do that well.
The other help for loneliness is looking to our relationship with God. I love the Psalmists words from our scripture reading today that say of God,
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me… Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?…If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:5, 8-10)
Today, I read these words as a blessed assurance of God’s presence in my life, and of God’s love. But I’ve heard these same scriptures used almost as weapons to instill fear of a God who sees and knows everything you do wrong. When I was growing up, I shared a room with my younger sister, and we had a day bed with a trundle that can be compressed and slide under the bed when you’re not using it. And that’s where I slept. And I remember that some nights, as I would start to pray, I would be overcome with such a fear of what God must think of me, that I wanted to roll myself under that bed in order to hide from God.
Friends, I am one of these that has experienced chronic loneliness. I have had times that because of my anxiety, I let my imagination run away with me about what others and God must think of me, to the point that I assumed the worst and distanced myself from others. I withdrew from friends and began to isolate myself, which led to depression and a life that seemed to have no purpose or meaning. And yes, I had to seek out the help of a therapist and recovery community to help me unwind those tapes that would play in my mind about an angry, vengeful, punishing God – and by extension, the disapproval and judgement that I assumed others felt towards me. And I am so thankful that now I can say, “What a friend I have in Jesus.” I am so grateful for a loving community who showed me the unconditional love of God! The love I have come to know in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the indwelling of God’s Spirit within me, and within God’s beloved community is a love that is expansive, inclusive, merciful, compassionate, and always present!
Today, I don’t hide from God when I pray; instead, I sit and bask in God’s loving gaze. We practiced this in worship last week, and I want to encourage you to try it on your own. There is a quote by St. Augustine that says, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” So find some time to sit and rest in God’s love of you. Instead of imagining God’s judgement or disappointment, let your mind dwell on God’s compassion. Instead of imaging that we are all alone, or that no one likes us, read scriptures that remind us of our “friendship” with God, of God’s never-ending and relentless love. Start a devotional practice with the GPS guide, and spend time with your new best friend, Jesus. God has said, I made you, I know you, I watch over you, I'm with you wherever you go; you can push me away, but I'll never leave you; I know all the creepy, cruddy things you've done and I'm still going to walk with you and pursue a relationship with you. Because God is our friend! How deep, and how wide is the never-ending love of God!
Matthew 5:43-48 43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor[ and hate your enemy.44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
1 John 4:16b-20 16 We have known and have believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.17 This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world.18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.19 We love because God first loved us.20 If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen.
We are in a sermon series called “Unafraid” where we are examining some of the most common fears of Americans today, and how our faith can enhance practical advice from the care community to help free us from the fears, worries and anxieties that rob of our joy and steal our peace. Today we are focusing on the fear of others. We learned in the first week that our brains are designed with a kind of “alarm system” to alert us to danger, which releases hormones that trigger the “fight or flight” response. And that the purpose of fear is to keep us safe. But that our complex minds and our rich imaginations can sometimes trigger this fear response when there is no actual danger. One of the most common fears that we would categorize as an unhealthy or imagined fear is the fear of the Other, a fear which has been perpetuated by the media and fear-mongering tactics of politicians. As humans, our fears of those who are not like us may extend to differences of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and even socio-economic status. And so today, we find ourselves in one of the most divisive and polarized eras in modern American history.
In November, new statistics were released that show a 17 percent increase in documented hate crimes in 2017, the third consecutive year in which hate crimes have risen across the United States. Not only did hate crimes rise altogether, but there were notable increases in anti-Hispanic and anti-Semitic crimes. Anti-black crimes also substantially outpaced all other race-based hate crimes, according to the 2017 Federal hate crime statistics. Hate crimes, by their very nature, are acts of violence perpetrated against someone the perpetrator deems “other than.” This fear of the ‘other’ has reached a point in our country where we are seeing a sharp rise in hate crimes, even while the national crime rate has declined substantially since the early 1990’s.
In response to this phenomenon, retired United Methodist Pastor and Bishop Will Willimon released a book last year entitled, Fear of the Other. In his introduction he writes, “Thanks to fellow Christians Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. If not for them, I would not have been asked to write this book. I’m serious. Competing attempts among politicians to leverage our fear of others into votes for them led to the idea of a book that thinks as Christians about the Other. Let the politicians do what they must to be elected by people like us, though I think they are selling us short. My job is not to worry about opinion polls, or what nine out of ten Americans can swallow without choking. My peculiar vocation is to help the church think like Christians so that we might be given the grace to act like Jesus.” (Willimon, William H.. Fear of the Other . Abingdon Press.)
Let me start by sharing that I feel an overwhelming responsibility to speak about the fears that seem to have gripped our nation’s imaginations, especially those of us who seek to follow the Way of Jesus, and that have caused real harm in our relationships with others. I think Church ought to be the very first place where we can say out loud what we see is going wrong in our lives and in our world, and then to courageously ask Jesus to send his Spirit of Truth to open our minds and hearts so that we can know how to respond in love.
So let me just share with you where my heart is on this issue of fear of the Other. Right now in America, our government is enduring its longest shutdown in American history because the president is demanding millions of dollars for a southern border wall, which doesn’t have American or congressional support. This is just another in a series of fear tactics, such as separating children from their families, aimed at curbing the number of brown-skinned immigrants that cross our Southern U.S. border. On Friday, a group of mostly white teen men wearing “Make America Great Again” hats confronted, intimidated and publicly taunted a Native American man in Washington D.C. while he was peacefully participating in an Indigenous People’s March. And next month, our denomination will convene a special General Session to determine if we can stay united as a church while disagreeing over the theology of human sexuality. Border security, intimidation and harassment, and legislating our interpretation of morality… these are signs of our fears. When we are uncomfortable with someone’s differences and allow those differences, along with whatever the news or politicians tell us, we allow our discomfort to turn to fear. And then, in response to that fear, we go to extraordinary measures to feel secure again. So we put up walls, we may invest in rifles and handguns or martial arts; we may demonize or dehumanize with our words, using slurs or insults that make us feel more powerful; and we make judgements that allow us to feel morally superior, and point our fingers at others, and shun and shame them. You see, when we let our fears of others take control, we almost never make good decisions about our behavior towards those whom we fear.
Growing up in Mississippi in the 70’s and 80’s, I was well-versed in the attitudes of white supremacy, even as my generation – the first generation born after the civil rights movement – tried to live out the ideals of equality. And maybe that’s why I am so passionate about the ideals of justice and equality in America. My generation had the opportunity to live differently than our parents and grandparents, because we were born in a new era, with new opportunities for everyone. But some fears, like racial fears, are harder to deal with than others.
In the book, Unafraid, Pastor Adam Hamilton writes about his own experience of growing up on one side of Kansas City and being taught that bad things happen to white people who venture into the other side. As an adult, he has had conversations with African Americans who grew up on that ‘other’ side of the city who remember being warned similarly, that to go into the other side of the city could be dangerous for them. And so another generation grew up being fearful of those who were of a different race, not because of anything they themselves experienced, but because of what they were told. And how much of our fears toward others today come from what we’re told by news outlets? You know, I think we forget that in order for something to make the news, that means it is news-worthy; in other words, uncommon, out of the ordinary, an anomaly. But the 24-hour news cycle keeps it ever present as if it is the most likely thing to happen in the world, and we lose our perspective. Whether we’re afraid of crime or terrorist attacks or the loss of our own economic security, the facts tell us that our fears are largely unfounded. Did you know that after heart disease, the second leading cause of death for Americans is medical error? But I don’t hear of many leading news stories or political platforms stoking our fear of French fries or hospitals…
So here are some questions for you to consider today: What differences between you and others make you the most fearful? Is it race, religion, politics, lifestyle? Do you fear Terrorists? Mexicans? Homosexuals? Hillary? The FBI? Trump? And in light of these fears, are you doing all you can to educate yourself about these fears, or are you indulging them by choosing to listen to and converse with those who share your same fear? Fake news is a phrase that’s tossed around a lot these days, but it isn’t really a new concept. Do any of you remember the first days of email, when you would be forwarded a really outrageous ‘news’ story, that had already been circulated five or six times before it got to you? Now, anything you click on the internet has the potential to be the same sort of ‘spam’ – something created just to get a ‘rise’ out of people, and not based on real facts or events. This may be a surprise to some of you, but did you know that you can choose your own news source these days that will support your own political leanings?? How can it be that we have news outlets that report the exact opposite ‘spin’ on events? (I’ve give you a hint: it means that neither one of them are telling you the whole truth!)
In the care community, one therapeutic tool for dealing with our fears of others, especially when we generalize our fears to certain people groups, is a method called “cognitive restructuring.” In the recovery community, they refer to this as eliminating stinkin’ thinkin’ by confronting our fears with factual information that refutes these fears. Cognitive restructuring begins by unpacking what it is that is creating the greatest fear for you. These are sometimes identified as Automatic Thoughts, convictions or tapes you play in your head, things you have come to accept as true about yourself, others or the world. Often these thoughts are distortions of reality. This includes either-or, black and white thinking, catastrophizing, jumping to conclusions, or assuming the worst. An important part of this therapeutic method is to hold any horrible, frightening story or thought with a grain of skepticism. The next step is to research and seek to discover if the thing you’ve heard that has you upset is actually true. From there you begin to develop a way of reminding yourself that the thought that scares you is not in fact true. Eventually, using this method, you retrain your “stinkin-thinkin” and conquer your fears.
Here’s an example of how this might work: many Americans today say that they believe violent crime is on the rise, and that they are more likely to be a victim of violent crime today than they were 10 years ago. But according to the FBI and the Justice Department statistics, violent crime has decreased a lot over the last fifteen years, nearly 50%. That one piece of information on its own may make you feel differently. But then you have to be able to internalize this and retrain your thinking. For instance, the most likely victim of a violent crime today, according to the Justice Department, is a poor black man living in the inner city, not an elderly suburbanite.
Fear, if left unchecked, can create enemies out of those who we consider ‘other.’ But this is not God’s will for us. In the Old Testament, the people of God had taken God’s ten commandments and extrapolated them into a moral code of 613 laws. Some of these laws allowed for vengeance and retribution on one’s enemies. Jesus referred to these in his sermon on the mount, which where our scripture reading from Matthew comes. In it Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven… Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” Other translations say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Greek word for ‘complete’ and ‘perfect’ is telos, implies maturing, or growing to completion, or reaching its intended outcome. Our intended purposes then, as children of God, is to reach this level of complete and perfect love for others. A love that is the reflection of the love that is shared in the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I’ve had the privilege of having some one-on-one conversations with others over the past few weeks about faith, and what it means to live as a follower of Jesus in this messed-up and divided world. My husband is in Mexico this week for a business meeting, and his first text message to me after letting me know his plan had landed was, “Having a moral crises over the haves, the have-nots, and excess living right now.” It reminded me of a conversation recently with someone else who had been in Mexico recently and had seen the desperation on the faces of some who were living in deep poverty. And this person explained how they had been haunted by those faces and their inability to do anything about it at the time. Here’s what I think. I think that when we see someone and recognize their need, and are moved with compassion, then I think we have seen them with the eyes of God. And, I also believe that being able to truly see another person, to see their humanness and vulnerability, means that we have seen Christ in them. And when we allow God’s Spirit to move through us, to give us eyes to see others as Christ sees them – and when we are able to recognize Christ as the stranger, as the hungry, as the outcast, as the person whose skin is a different color than ours, then the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is the relationship we are created from – the relationship of God the Creator, Jesus the Christ, and Holy Spirit – the Trinity which is Love. And this is the relationship we are created for.
The scripture reading in 1 John 4 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.” (vs. 18) As followers of Jesus Christ, as children of the God of Love – our purpose is to love others as ourselves. Not necessarily ‘as much as’ ourselves, but as an extension of ourselves – as one in Christ. We are all connected to each other through a loving God who “makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.” No matter who it is that you voted for, when it comes to racial justice or the humane treatment of those fleeing war and genocide; when it comes to teens taking their own lives rather than face being disowned by their families and churches; when it comes to food and economic insecurity and homelessness, our purpose is to love. Not to judge, not to exclude, not to alienate or demonize, but to love.
Our cognitive restructuring can help with this, as well. If this ethic of love sounds too high-minded to be of much practical use, we can start by asking one very concrete question: “In the situation I find myself in, what is the most loving thing that I can do?” We can center our minds on the love we receive from Christ, and then pray for God to fill us so full of that love in order to lead us to a loving response to a particular situation or fear. One way to make this part of your daily spiritual practice is a meditation exercise on the Loving Gaze of God. I’m going to lead you through this now, so find a comfortable position and take three slow, deep breaths.
Now, try to imagine the face of God. For you it may look like the face of someone who loves you tremendously, or it may be helpful to imagine the face of Jesus as you’ve seen it depicted in paintings. Once you have an image in your mind, imagine that face beaming at you with eyes of love. It may look similar to images you’ve seen of a parent holding a newborn. This is the way God looks at you. Like a beaming, proud parent. In the safety of that loving gaze—as God takes a long, loving look at us—we can grow courageous enough and hopeful enough to look honestly at our particular problems, hurts, fears or dreams. In learning how to contemplate God’s love for us, we learn how to look at one another and at the whole of God’s creation with God’s eyes of love.
Tomorrow is the day that we celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He believed in the possibility of the Beloved Community – in all of God’s children one day realizing what it means to live out of agape love for one another, out of a perfect love that casts out fear. In 1957, he famously said, “But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”
Today we’re beginning a new series of sermons called “Unafraid – Living with Courage and Hope.” This series is going to help us look at some of the fear, worry and anxiety affecting million of Americans today. We’ll be using a book written by United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton, who launched this series with his own church in Kansas City last year. And I want to encourage you to pick up a copy of the book and join us at 9:15am on Sunday mornings as we delve more deeply into each week’s theme. There will be a small group meeting in the conference room for youth and adults, as well as a “Fearless Kids” Sunday School class for children at the same time. We will also have daily devotions and scripture readings posted on Facebook and on the Worship tab of our website, so there are multiple ways that you can commit in this New Year to grow in your faith along with this series.
Pastor Adam has conducted a series of surveys to find out what fears most Americans struggle with, and he has interviewed professionals in the therapeutic community to research some of the causes as well as therapies for these fears. And then he points us to scriptures and spiritual practices to help us frame our fears in light of our faith. As we jump into our sermon today, I think we can all agree that we are living in a day and age when we need a series like this. A series that names the real-life fears and worries that many of us struggle with. As Americans, we are living in a time of school shootings, and terrorist attacks, and increased pressure from a world run by technology; our kids today seem to be pushed to participate in enough activities to fill up every waking minute of their day, and adults are struggling just to keep up with the barrage of new information coming from all directions. My smartphone vibrates or, if I have the sound on, dings every time there is breaking news. Usually, when I wake up in the morning, there are already at least two messages for me on my screen telling me about something I should be aware of. And these days, with the 24-hour news cycle, ‘breaking news’ is always framed as something alarming, and more often than not, it truly is. Today we know about natural disasters and outbreaks of war and violence instantaneously in places we may not even be able to find on a map. So we are constantly being thrown into a state of panic or worry every time we hear of an earthquake, or stock market declines, or a terrible accident, or a mass shooting. We really are living in an age of high anxiety!
And then, there’s the chronic worry that each of us feel over our families, or our kids or grandkids, or finances. On top of that, for many of us there is constant stress from our jobs. For me personally, I worry about my kids being happy and successful, I worry about letting people down, I worry about all of you, and your spiritual needs, and I worry about whether we’ll be able to pay our mortgage on this new building, whether we’ll be able to afford a stove and hood for the kitchen, whether we’ll be relevant or make a difference in the lives of our neighbors, and whether we’ll be able to save our historic chapel. I worry about whether I’ll have anything worthwhile to say on Sunday mornings! We all experience some kind of worry and stress; and these can be chronic, and can gnaw away at us, even show up in our dreams as our subconscious minds try to help us solve our problems. So what about you? What do you worry about? What makes you fearful?
As much as these worries and stresses plague us, there is another level of anxiety that affects over 57 million Americans – one in six – who suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress syndrome, and the list goes on. Some of these individuals may feel like they are having a heart attack; their chest tightens or feels heavy, their palms get sweaty, they may break into a cold sweat, and their flight or fight mechanism breaks into full gear. This is the most common mental illness in America.
What’s puzzling is that, according to all the latest data, we are actually living in one of the safest periods of human history; we have less to fear today than ever before. We’re living longer, and at a higher standard of living; crime rates are down drastically over the past twenty years; most of the terrible childhood diseases of the past have been defeated; and less people are dying in wars. Daniel Gardner, in his book The Science of Fear, notes that, “We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time.”
But fear is nothing new; it is something that human have struggled with for all of human history. Did you know that there are over 400 references to fear in the bible? The most repeated phrase in response to those fears is, “Don’t be afraid.” These words, in one form or another, appear over 140 times in scripture. They remind us that ordinary women and men from the age of Israel’s patriarchs to first-century Christians struggled with fear. But they also show us that faith can be pivotal to overcoming fear and finding peace in uncertain times. That’s the good news of this series – that in addition to therapies and medications prescribed by the medical and care community, that faith can play a prominent role in helping us to deal with our fears.
Now, fear itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Our brain has a system in place to let our bodies know, even before we can rationally process a situation, that there is danger. It’s what kept us safe from tigers and snakes and other predators in early human history. We call it the fight or flight response, and it is controlled by these tiny, almond sized glands in our brains called the amygdala. You may have even heard this part of the brain describes as the reptilian brain. It is what causes us to act by instinct or reflex instead of by rational thought. In situations of actual danger, this is a very good thing! The amygdala acts as a kind of smoke detector, an early warning system. When it detects a potential threat, even before you can rationally process the situation, the amygdala releases hormones in the brain that trigger a cascading series of effects in your body: your heart races, your blood is diverted away from parts of your body to your muscles, your blood pressure increases, your pupils dilate, and your body is prepared to either run away, or stay and fight off the tiger or put out the fire, or whatever other physical response is needed to the impending danger. The flooding of adrenaline in these situations are what help people accomplish seemingly super-human feats, like lifting a car off someone. So we give thanks to God that we have been designed with a brain that can help protect and preserve us in times of danger!
There is a second system in our brains that helps us anticipate future needs, like food, water and shelter, as well as potential threats. It’s what helps us remember to wear our seatbelts, because we know the potential threat of getting into a car accident, or to make sure the kids have their scarfs and gloves on a cold day. The problem with this system is our own imagination. Our imaginations, coupled with things we hear from others or from the news, or from unhealthy thoughts that play over and over in our minds, or from memories of traumatic experiences, can actually convince us to be afraid when there is no real danger. So from here on out, we’re going to be talking about what happens when our brain’s alarm system is triggered, and there is not an actual threat; when we’re plagued by false fears and unhealthy worry.
Anxiety disorders run in my family. There is a genetic predisposition to mental illnesses such as anxiety, and I first became aware of my own anxiety right after my first child was born. My mom came to stay a few days with us when we came home from the hospital. And I had read, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” from cover to cover, so I thought I was all prepared for taking care of the baby when we came home. But nothing prepared me for what I was going to experience. For those predisposed to anxiety and depression, the hormonal changes of pregnancy and childbirth can create the perfect conditions for the manifestation of these disorders. After being home for two days, my mom though it would be good for me to get out of the house for a while, so she suggested I make a trip to the store to exchange one of the two strollers we received. She volunteered to stay home with the baby. So off I went, and as soon as I pulled out of my apartment’s parking lot, I had a massive panic attack and had to turn around. I was overcome with the vivid images of my apartment bursting into flames while I was gone, and simultaneously my car crashing, and all of us meeting our demise. I could not understand why this was happening. We tried later that day to go to the store with my mom driving, and Thomas staying home with the baby, and the same thing happened. The next day, we tried going with my mom driving and the baby and I safely buckled in the back, and again, we go no farther than the parking lot.
We were never in any danger. But the chemical and hormonal changes in my brain had convinced me that getting into a car would result in horrible tragedy! Mine is an extreme example of how false fears can grip us. But many of our fears today are a manifestation of our imagination getting the best of us. One acronym for fear that I’ve really come to appreciate is : False Events Appearing Real. When our brains have latched onto something that is not a real danger, but convinces us it is anyway, that’s fear. You know the little sticker on the rear view mirror that says, Objects in Mirror may be closer than they appear? Well, fear is like the opposite of that: obstacles or threats may appear larger than they really are. In the book, Pastor Adam reminds us that when the Israelites were led by God out of Egypt and to the land God had promised their ancestor Abraham, that only two of the 12 scouts or spies that surveyed the land believed that God would be with them and help them take the land. But the rest of them said, “No, the wall is too big, too strong, and all of the people are like giants, and we are like mere grasshoppers.” That’s what we do with our fears, sometimes. We see them as giants, and we feel small and helpless against them.
One of the suggestions from the therapeutic community in light of these false fears is what they call exposure therapy. We might just call it facing our fears. The idea is to put yourself in the situation where you are experiencing fear with someone who can remind you that you’re safe. And that once you begin to experience that situation several times with no catastrophic outcomes, that your fear lessens. Often when we feel anxious about something we avoid it, and the worry, anxiety or fear remains. Exposure helps you clearly identify the source of your fear or anxiety, and then to slowly face your fear by exposing yourself to it, usually starting with small steps and gradually increasing the level of exposure. Since our fears are typically unfounded, when we confront them we find they no longer control us. Instead we conquer them. Pastor Adam gives us a great example of this in his book. He heard a radio broadcast of the radio journalist helping his 10-year-old daughter overcome her fear of roller coasters. They went to a Six Flags amusement park and started with the kiddie coaster, which she rode and enjoyed. So he kept suggesting the next size coaster, and she would eventually agree to ride, and to her surprise, found that she both survived, and enjoyed the rides. She was having fun. They ended up riding every roller coaster in the park. When they came to the biggest and scariest of all, it was over 9 stories high, with steep drops and revolutions. And the journalists made an audio recording of her riding that last ride. As the ride came to a stop, she said, gushed, “I just rode a looping roller coaster for the first time in my life. And it wasn’t even that bad. I am a different person than I was a minute ago!”
“I am a different person than I was a minute ago.” Medications, therapies, facing our fears – these can all help us to find ways to keep fear from robbing us of peace and joy! I mentioned that in the Bible, the most repeated phrase in response to fear is “Do not be afraid,” but I didn’t mention that it is usually accompanied with, “for I am with you.” Our scripture from Isaiah today reminds us of that.
Isaiah 41:10 Don’t fear, because I am with you; don’t be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will surely help you; I will hold you with my righteous strong hand.
God gave these words to Isaiah to speak to God’s people at a time of great fear. They were being conquered by Babylon, their temple was eventually destroyed and they were forced into captivity. And it’s important to know the historical and cultural context of scripture, because we can trace God’s promises and faithfulness throughout the record of scripture. But we also believe that God’s Word is living and breathing today – that God still speaks to us through these ancient words. So one of the spiritual practices that is suggested is to read scripture as if God is talking to you, and to respond to each line of scripture as if you are talking to God. It is a way of praying the scriptures. And it might sound like this:
Don’t fear, because I am with you; (Yes, Lord, thank you so much for your presence in my life.) don’t be afraid, for I am your God. (Yes, Lord, I place my life in your hands.) I will strengthen you, (thank you for your strength, Lord) I will surely help you; (thank you for your help, God) I will hold you with my righteous strong hand. (God, please wrap your arms around me, and hold me, and lead me forward in your will. Thank you God for loving and caring for me. Amen.)
Our second reading today was one of the Psalmists own prayers in a time of fear. Before David became king, he had become the object of the previous King – King’s Saul’s – mad obsession. King Saul eventually tried to have David killed, and so David had to go into hiding. Spending long amounts of time alone, on the run for his life, David would write and sing these prayers to God.
Psalm 56:3-4 3 whenever I’m afraid, I put my trust in you-- 4 in God, whose word I praise. I trust in God; I won’t be afraid.
Singing is another spiritual practice that can help us cling to our faith as we confront our fears. I had the great gift of sitting with two of my grandparents in the hours before their deaths. And when I couldn’t find words to speak, I would sing.
I was with my grandfather on his last day. He had fought a long fight with lung cancer, and towards the end of his life had to be put on a ventilator. I brought my hymnal the day he went into ICU. We knew he only had hours left. And I was in the room when he became partially alert, and you could see his hands move as if to find his bearings. I held his hand at that point and told him I was there, and that I brought my hymnal. I told him I wanted to sing some of his favorite songs. And I could feel his arms and body begin to relax as I sang.
A few years later, it was my Dad’s mother who was in a coma after a fall and brain bleed. I flew down to be with her and my family as we gathered in her hospital room for her final days. Like most of the memories I have from my dad’s side of the family, anytime most of us can get together, someone asks us to sing. So we did. We sang my grandmother’s favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace.” And we held on to our faith that she could hear us even in her state, and that she was singing with us on the inside, and that the faith that we sang about would carry her into the arms of Jesus, where she and all of our loved ones will be waiting there for us one day. Our faith – that’s what we have to cling to in the face of all our fears. Do not be afraid, for God is with us. Thanks be to God!