An Age of High Anxiety
In the series: “Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope”
Heart beating faster, racing in your chest, feeling like it might explode. Dry mouth. Cold, clammy hands and feet. Shallow, short breaths. Dilated pupils. Stomach feels nauseated. General feeling of unease or panic.
Have you ever experienced anything similar to those symptoms? If so, then you have known fear and anxiety in your life.
The reality is that we all experience fear, worry and anxiety. Our Gospel reading reflects the fact that these have always been part of the human condition.
Today there seems to be so much more to fear: terrorism, economic and market volatility, identity theft, school shootings, technology, political discord. Not to mention keeping our families and children safe, personal health, paying the bills, managing interpersonal relationships, and so on. Our kids deal with text anxiety, social status stress and others.
In May 2018, Time magazine reported that a poll by the American Psychiatric Association showed that 40% of Americans were more anxious than they were the year before, while just 19% were less anxious. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 40 million people age 18 and over (18% of the population) are affected by anxiety disorders, as are 8% of children and teenagers. That’s about one in every 5 to 6 adult Americans. For our congregation, in terms of all those attending worship any given Sunday, approximately 45 to 55 people are affected.
What’s ironic is we are living longer than any previous generation; our standard of living is higher; we have defeated most terrible childhood diseases of the past. Crime rates generally are lower than they were 20 to 30 years ago.
Author Daniel Gardner, in his book The Science of Fear, notes: “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.”
Now we don’t always like to admit that we feel afraid or anxious, especially guys, so we’re more likely to say that we’re feeling “stressed out.”
One of the stresses in my life relates to my job, which might also be one of your stresses.
Even in my 25th year of ministry, I still get some butterflies when I speak to a congregation or a group. Occasionally I have a dream in which I oversleep on Sunday morning, have barely enough time to comb my hair, get ready and get to church. Then, as I stand up to preach, I realize I have no notes and can’t remember what I was going to talk about.
Fear, anxiety and worry can wear us down physically, emotionally, spiritually. They can affect our health and wellbeing. They impact our relationships with family, coworkers and others.
Fear stems from two systems in our brains which are designed for our protection and self-preservation as a gift from God.
One of these is known as the “fight or flight” mechanism. It’s like a smoke detector. When it detects a potential threat, before we are even conscious of it, our early warning system sounds the alarm.
You can imagine the potential problem involving this system if your smoke detector has ever gone off. You don’t see or smell any smoke; you search through the whole house and don’t find any threat, but the detector is still sounding.
There’s a second mechanism in our brains that is meant to anticipate future events, especially needs for food, water and shelter, as well as possible threats. The problem comes when our imaginations combine with data from the news, from others, from memories of the past. We can inflate threats and catastrophize – that is, imagine that the worst case scenario is going to happen.
Some of you know that we have a dog named Winston. He is a Maltepoo and was rescued from a puppy mill. Winston is a very anxious, nervous dog. When we arrive home today, he will bark at us. When anyone comes over, even if he knows them, he barks and growls at them, while he retreats. If he hears a noise outside, he barks. He often just sits and shakes and during storms he hides under the bed. Shaped by his past in the puppy mill, his fears continue to cause him to perceive every person or sound as a potential threat, even when that person is one of the family.
As we anticipate the worst, we become fearful and anxious, experiencing physical, emotional and spiritual reactions. We experience what has been described by the acronym, “False Expectations Appearing Real.” We might spend hours planning for the worst, only to discover that it never happens. Do you think that is how God intends for us to live? So how do we deal with our fears?
One way to deal with fear is to face or confront our fears. Rather than running away, ignoring them or becoming paralyzed, we intentionally and strategically approach our fears until we can get through them.
Several years ago a group of adults and youth from church invited me to go whitewater rafting with them on the New River. I had never done that before, but eventually agreed. Then, when the guide described how the water where we put in was about 90 feet deep, I felt panic begin to rise in me. I didn’t know if that little life vest would keep me afloat if I fell in. And, oh, by the way, I can’t swim, so the thought of being in deep water terrifies me. I almost told them to drop me off on the bank, but, after a whispered prayer,
I breathed deeply and listened for the guide’s instructions. It turned out to be a great experience that I would never have had if I hadn’t faced my fear.
I wonder, are there any fears you might need to face and step into?
In the Bible, there is one phrase that appears more than any other – more than 140 times, these words come from the lips of God, angels or Jesus. The words?
“Do not be afraid” or “Do not fear.”
As Jesus spoke to the crowd on the mountainside, he gave them a variation of that message: “Do not worry about your life” (Matt 6:25) and he called the people to notice how God takes care of the birds and the flowers as reassurance that God will care for them. One way to address our fears is to reflect on creation to find courage and hope. The beauty of the New River gorge helped me during my whitewater rafting experience.
We find another way to cope with our fears in the life of David. David had been chosen by God to be the next king, but Saul, the current king, was jealous and wanted to kill David.
One time, David hid in enemy territory. David was afraid of Saul and that the enemy would get him. How did David cope? He wrote prayers and set them to music. Today, we have them in the book of Psalms in the Bible. On that particular occasion, he wrote Psalm 56, which says in part (Psalm 56:3-4):
When I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I am not afraid;
what can flesh do to me?
The tune is lost to us, but perhaps we could sing another song that might encourage us. On one occasion while visiting someone, it was clear that she was afraid. I noticed a painting of a sparrow on her wall, and she said she loved to watch the birds outside her window. In that moment, God’s Spirit prompted me to ask if I could sing to her. I sang the old hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” which says in part, “I sing because I’m happy / I sing because I’m free / for his eye is on the sparrow / and I know he watches me.”
Later in Old Testament history, when the Jewish people had been taken into exile, God spoke to them through the prophet Isaiah. Read these words with me (Isaiah 41:10):
“Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”
One way a passage like this can be helpful is to pray it. Turn it into a prayer. It might sound something like this: “Help me not to be afraid. Remind me that you are with me and that you are my God. Help me trust that you will strengthen. I believe you will help me. Hold me with your strong hand.”
When we remember that God is with us, our fear and anxiousness often subsides – or at least, we can put them in proper perspective. So don’t give in to fear (False Expectations Appearing Real); try facing fears head-on. Look at creation, pray, sing and imagine that God is holding you. Then you can live with courage and hope unafraid.
[One resource that has inspired this sermon series is Adam Hamilton’s book, “Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018.]
 “Anxiety Disorders,” National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed 01/05/2019. https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions/anxiety-disorders.