Sermon for January 7, 2018

FEAR NOT:  ANXIETY

Isaiah 41:10-13, Psalm 56:1-4

The first in a series of six.

 

We were in Cabo San Lucas a few years ago for my niece’s wedding.  This was back when part of my day, every day, was a run.  We were staying in a rented condo.  I was up early as usual.  I ran past a security guard on my way out to explore the city.  It was a great run.  I was careful to pay attention to my route so I could get back to that same security entrance, which I did.

But there was a problem.  The security guard wouldn’t let me back in.  I tried my best to explain in what little Spanish I could remember.  But nothing I could say would change his mind.

I had no identification, no phone, no money, and I knew no other way to get back to my family.  I really didn’t know what I was going to do.  As I walked along the perimeter of the high wall that kept riff raff like me out of that exclusive area, I came eventually to a construction zone.  I thought maybe I could sneak through there.

I tried, but didn’t get far when I came to another security check-point.  Again, I tried to explain my dilemma.  I told the guard what had happened and that my family by now must be worried about me and wondering what had happened.  The way I said it in Spanish was,

Mi familia tiene miedo.  Which means, “My family is afraid.”

I think he liked the fact that I was trying to use his language.  Because with a big smile on his face he said, No hay miedo en México!  “There is no fear in Mexico!”  And he let me in.

There might be no fear in Mexico, but there is plenty of fear in the Bible.  In fact, in the familiar Christmas story that is still ringing in our ears, the words, “Do not be afraid”, are spoken four times.

It’s been said there are 365 places in the Bible where we are told not to be afraid.  That means one “fear not” for every day of the year.  That was a little too convenient.  The number is closer to 80 if you go strictly by the words “fear not” or “do not be afraid”.  If you expand it to other phrases that mean the same thing, the number expands to over 400.  Sometimes it is God who is speaking, sometimes Jesus, sometimes an angel, as was the case all four times in the Christmas story.

Our Isaiah passage is related to the Christmas story.  The very first words sung in Handel’s “Messiah” are, “Comfort ye, my people.”  That’s from Isaiah 40.  We read from Isaiah 41, where the theme of comforting fearful people continues.  “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God” (41:10).

Back in Bible times, God is always having to tell fraidy cat people not to be afraid.  Aren’t you glad we don’t live in Bible times!  Aren’t you glad we live in times when there is nothing left to fear!  Science and technology have finally, after all these years, conquered fear and worry and anxiety.

Well, maybe not quite.  In fact, I wonder if people have ever been more afraid than they are today.  So I thought maybe a series on this subject might be something a few of us could relate to.  Maybe quite a few.  Because fear is part of what it means to be human.  It’s natural.  It’s normal.  It’s part of life.  But fear can also be painful, and crippling, and keep us from living the lives God intends for us to live.

So what does the Bible say about dealing with our fears?  It says, “Fear not.”  Anywhere from 80 to over 400 times it says that.  But it says more than just that.  Telling a frightened person to “fear not” is about as helpful as telling the Cleveland Browns to score more touchdowns.  They would if they could, but they can’t, and that’s the problem.

We will be looking at some practical steps to real help, found in the Bible.  We start today with anxiety.  Next week we will look at fear of the other, also known by the big name, “xenophobia”.  If you learn nothing else next week, you will learn that word to add to your vocabulary.  Then we will consider loneliness, fear of failure, fear of the future, and finally the big one – fear of our own mortality.

We can put on a brave face.  It’s not socially acceptable for anyone older than 4 to run around in circles with our hands waving in the air saying, “I’m scared!!”  But still, fear is a big part of our lives.

Here’s just a quick list of things we have to be afraid of.  First, in the world “out there”:

  • Terrorism
  • Economic collapse
  • The national debt
  • North Korea
  • Global warming
  • Shootings at schools, concerts, churches
  • Identity theft
  • Washington, D.C.

 

You can use that last one as shorthand for whatever name or political party you would like to insert.

Then the things we have to be afraid of that are part of the world “in here”:

  • Cancer
  • Memory Loss
  • Depression
  • Anxiety (that’s the one we are going to focus on today)
  • Debt
  • Addiction
  • Running Out of Money in Retirement
  • Children’s Problems
  • Legal Problems
  • Children’s Legal Problems

 

We could go on and on.  There is no shortage of reasons to be afraid.  Of course, most of us are not going to admit that we are afraid to anyone but ourselves.  So what do we say instead?  We say we are stressed out.  That’s more socially acceptable.

You know what stresses me out?  You do!  I love what I do, I love you, and I’m not complaining one bit, but most jobs are stressful, and this is one that is.

Our dreams pinpoint our fears pretty accurately.  After quite a few years of going to school and taking tests and writing papers, I had the recurring dream of a major assignment that was due the very next day and I hadn’t even started it yet.

I didn’t think that dream would ever go away.  But finally it did.

I haven’t had that dream in a long time now.  The dream that has taken its place, that I have now with some regularity is that I am late for church.  You are all here waiting for me, wondering where I am.  When I finally get here, I realize that I forgot to prepare a sermon.   And worst of all, I forgot to put my clothes on.

You do stress me out!

Here’s the funny thing about all this.  Every study seems to show that fear, worry, and anxiety are at all-time record levels.  And yet, most of us have never had it better.  Economically, most of us are doing fairly well.  Unemployment is down.  Violent crime is down.  Fewer Americans have died in war in the last 40 years than any other 40 years stretch of our history.  Worldwide, people are living longer than ever before.  In this country, that’s not quite the case, thanks to opioid abuse.  But worldwide, life expectancy is going up.  Poverty is going down.  Reading levels are going up.

Our Silent Preparation for this morning comes from a book called The Science of Fear.  Here is what the author, Daniel Gardner says:

We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest living people in history.  And we are also increasingly afraid. This is one of the greatest paradoxes of our time.

 

Fear takes its toll on us in a couple of significant ways.  It makes us hard to live with.  It undermines the trust that is the basis of any healthy relationship.  It robs the joy from our lives, and that means it also robs joy from those who otherwise might enjoy being around us.

And fear takes a toll on our health.  Not just our emotional health, but our physical health.  The two are connected.  It is

possible – it happens all the time – for people literally to worry themselves to death.

The form of worry a lot of us struggle with is called anxiety.  Anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing.  It can be a good thing.  I suffered a little anxiety when this sermon was slow in coming together, and that served as an effective motivator for me to get to work and get it done.  But anxiety can get out of control.  And to understand what happens when anxiety gets out of control, I’m going to share with you a word that I just learned.  Next week we learn the word xenophobia.  This week we learn the word amygdala.

My spell check doesn’t even recognize that word.  We all have one but you might not know you have one because it is buried deep inside your brain.  Your amygdala gets activated when you are scared.

Here is a fun fact.  Scientists have done brain surgery on laboratory rats, purposely destroying their amygdalas.  After surgery, these rats were unafraid of anything, even cats.

Which helps us see why God knew what he was doing when he gave us an amygdala.  Because a rat that’s not afraid of a cat is a rat with a very short life expectancy.  So anxiety has a good function.

It’s kind of like the smoke detectors in our homes.  It’s a good thing they are there to warn us of danger.  But it’s also a real nuisance when the battery gets low and they go off in the middle of the night when there is no danger.

That happens a lot in our homes.  That happens a lot more in our heads.  The amygdala gets triggered when there is no reason for it to get triggered.  If it happens frequently enough, there’s a name for it.  Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  57 million Americans have it.  That’s one out of every five or six Americans.  So in a group of people this size (100), about 18 of you have this.  Anxiety is the most common psychiatric complaint.  44 million prescriptions for Xanax are written every year.

Often the anxiety we feel is our imagination running wild.  We think about all the bad things that might happen.  We think about all the terrible things we hear about on the news.  We imagine that it might happen to us.  And we react with the same fear and anxiety for an imaginary threat that we would and should feel for a real threat.  The alarm is going off in our brains, but there is no reason to be alarmed.

Kind of like our cat, Simba when the New Year’s fireworks started going off.  He was terrified.  He hid.  When we found him, he was shaking.  But he was in no danger.

He couldn’t understand that, but even if he could, it probably wouldn’t have helped.  People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder can seldom be talked out of it.  The fear they feel is real.  They still feel it, even when the logical part of their brain tells them they don’t need to.  Because the amygdala is part of their brain, too, and the amygdala speaks a different language, not the language of logic.

Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”  But still he worried.  And still we worry.

So what do we do with our fears, worries, and anxieties?  I’m going to close with some things I hope will help.

1) Use anxiety as God’s gift to protect you and those you love from danger.  It’s there for a reason.  This is the reason.  God gave you a fight or flight mechanism because God loves you and God is watching out for you.  God also gave you the ability to worry about potential threats in the future so that you can prepare for them in advance.  For example, I hope the fear of having no money when you are old has motivated you to plan ahead and build a nest egg.  All this is a good thing.  Anyone with a pulse feels some anxiety, which is as it should be.

2) When your anxiety goes beyond what is normal and helpful, seek help.  I mentioned earlier the commonly prescribed drug, Xanax.  It and other similar drugs help a lot of people.  So see your medical doctor.  Talk therapy with a counselor can also help.  Even just getting your fears out in the open with a trusted friend can make these fears less scary.  Especially when you realize you aren’t the only one.

3) One way many people get over irrational fears is to force themselves do the very thing they fear.  We have a Toastmasters group in our church that has helped a lot of people overcome one of the most common fears of all: fear of public speaking.  Or people afraid of flying in airplanes fly in airplanes.  Or people afraid of riding roller coasters go for a roller coaster ride.  It’s called exposure therapy.  It doesn’t always work, but when it does it works because it proves to you that what your amygdala tells you is so scary is really not that scary after all.

4) Or learn from David in the Bible.  Do what David did.

We believe many of the Psalms were written by David, and we believe Psalm 56 was one of them.  David’s life was in danger.  This is before he was King.  His life was often in danger from King Saul, who was insanely jealous of the future King David, but this time we think it was the Philistines who were after him.  Picture David hiding in a cave.  Any minute an army of Philistines could appear at the entrance to that cave, and his life would be over.  So what did David do?  He wrote this Psalm.  It was addressed to God.

When I am afraid, I will trust in you.  In God, whose

word I praise, in God I trust without a fear.   What can

mortal man do to me? (56:3-4)

 

He wrote these words.  He prayed these words.  Then he sang these words.  The Psalms were written to be sung.  That’s why we sing so often in church.  Songs of faith can make our fears smaller, because they remind us that God is bigger than anything we might fear.

5) Finally, use your imagination.  The same imagination that can run wild and cause our anxiety to go off the charts.  Use that gift of God for something good.  Imagine God’s loving arms around you.  Holding you.  Loving you.  Protecting you.  Telling you that you have nothing to fear.

There’s just one next step on your Connection Card this week.  Although memorizing the scripture we read today is recommended, I wanted to just give you one thing, so you would do it.  It’s very simple. Pray with David:  “When I am afraid of __________________, I will trust in you, O Lord.”

Just fill in the blank.  Most of us will need to fill in the blank more than once.  Our fears are many.   Then pray that prayer.  As often as you need to.  Pray that prayer.

Because whatever causes you the most fear, worry, and anxiety, it’s nothing compared to God, who is saying to you in your scariest moments, “Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10).

 

Lord God, there is a lot of fear in the Bible.  And there is a lot of fear in our hearts.  We can do our best to bury that fear, or deny it, or ignore it, but it is real and often, too often it gets the upper hand.  All our fears won’t go away.  All our fears shouldn’t go away, because sometimes fear is good.  But God, remind us that you are bigger and stronger than anything we might fear.  May our faith and courage grow, may our fear and anxiety recede, as we put our trust in you.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.