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!