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.
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.
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!