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February 20, 2017

Do Not Be Anxious About Your Life

I thought I had heard it all but in an NPR report the other day on electric cars I heard about another reason to worry in our world. Its called "range anxiety" and it comes about because on the dash board of your super fuel efficient electric vehicle it shows you how many miles you have left before you need to recharge and unlike gas vehicles which may have the same monitor, once the electric gage hits 200 miles left and you are on a trip you begin to worry because there are just not that many charging stations out there as there are gas stations.(Some of us can let the gas gauge go pretty low). Who knew all our smart college professors and Al Gore disciples driving Priuses were secretly biting their nails down to cuticle while developing a modern new anxiety disorder? Lucky for us the President may disband or emasculate the EPA before we all worry ourselves to death.

But attempts at humor aside, one more thing to worry about is about the last thing we need in our lives and world. Are you a worrier? Do you ruminate and fret? Think about all the possible bad things that may happen? How does anxiety effect your life?

The truth is that many of us find ourselves unable to get out of the grip of constant worry and anxiety. We have a million words for it: panic, fretting, dread, apprehensive, vexed, distressed, disquieted, fearful. It seems just part of the human condition and touches us all at one time or another. An inner turmoil and uneasiness that author Patricia Pearson says its the most common illness in America. 40 million Americans will suffer anxiety in their lifetime — the highest level in the world. $42 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on anxiety disorders. Our "national epidemic" she calls it in her book, A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine). "It's an unnerving time to be alive," she says. (Wikipedia)

We worry about big things: Climate change / You are not sane if you are not worried about causal insane nuclear weapons proliferation. Many of us are worried to death about the direction of our country . It seems we are reversing direction of these last stabilizing years - exit from wars and a progressive, outward, inclusive, community minded concern for the less fortunate. We seem to be going in an anti intellectual, backward, inward, exclusive and excluding, self above community and others direction. And of course we all have our own individual and private worries and anxieties. We worry financially if we can make ends meet. All of us at times are anxious about our own health or often worse, the health of loved ones. If I told you mine you may laugh. I'm a minister I am not suppose to laugh at yours. But often it is what makes us tick as individuals, how we carry out our daily dialogue between our conscious and sub conscious selfs. What is really on our minds. What bugs us that we can not seem to get of or move past. The not "good enoughs" . The "what if that happens". Things that preoccupies and eats away at us; makes us restless during the day and sleepless at night? 

I picked up a book recently entitled Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety, and found author Robert Gerzon analysis helpful. He seeks first to name and understand anxiety by separating anxiety into 3 basic kinds: natural anxiety, toxic anxiety, and sacred anxiety. Natural anxiety, believe it or not is good. He says it is "rooted in our awareness as our status as vulnerable biological organisms whose well being can be threatened. Freud called this objective anxiety and Rollo May called it "normal anxiety" and is reality based - a reaction to perceived danger /part of our instinct for self preservation". We need it to survive. It is usually in proportion to the danger and it also goes away when the danger is gone. "It is hardwired into our nervous system." In we advanced humans it is actually a tool for growth. We have the ability to look ahead and perceive or imagine danger and so we can plan constructively (take an umbrella if the forecast is rain - plan/ save money - (do not leave a computer in visible sight in an unlocked car - unless you are dumb like me).

Toxic anxiety as you probably guess is not good and has been called the fear of fear itself. (we make mountains out of mole hills - the object of anxiety is not longer "out there" but made up in our minds by our worry and exaggeration and fear of worse outcomes). And Gerzon says when we suppress natural or sacred anxiety, either consciously or unconsciously, we end up with toxic anxiety. Toxic anxiety often has it origins in past traumas or unresolved issues. It blows everything out of proportion. It replaces a true object of anxiety with a false one and creates inner conflict and overwhelms our ability to think clearly and respond effectively. We too often deal with it by denial or distraction or suppressing anxious feelings inside ourselves or even dumping them on others: criticizing, blaming, manipulating others. Someone with unresolved "acceptance" issues or feels unloved or vulnerable can be brutal in their treatment of others.

Very briefly, Sacred Anxiety is the fact that no matter how great a life we live we are going to die and we are aware of it. It is dealing with the unknown and the uncertain and life's ultimate questions. This concerns our basic values and beliefs, how we deal with the meaning and purpose of life. Religiously speaking it is what they used to call "fear" of God and what they meant was divine awe. Although serious and often portends struggle and even pain, it is a good journey that we are all on. It is what faith is all about.

Step one for Gerzon is to realize what kind of worry you are doing most of the time. And I think this is part of what Jesus is saying today and what "faith" may say to our anxiety issues.

"Do not be anxious about your life..what you should eat or drink or wear - life is more than food - body more than clothing? Let me get out my presbyterian theology book to double check this? Oh Yes Jesus was as human as he was divine. He experienced everything that we do. We wonder, does he know what he is talking about? Was it just easier for him cause he was closer to God? Does he realize how much there is to worry about? How it seems impossible not to worry?

Jesus did know about worry and life. John Buchanan in his sermon on this passage points out that from the time Jesus was young until 30 years of age he worked hard to make ends meet, probably took care of his mother and brothers and sisters as the eldest, without Joseph, ran a carpenter or building business. And I would add a couple of more examples. Think about the time he made his parents worry so much when he took off for the temple when he was twelve. Or when he felt real temptation deep in his soul in the dessert about his faith, values, and direction. Or when he was so worried about Jerusalem that he sat on the mountainside and cried. Or when he sweated drops of blood thinking about what may come in the morning if he continued down his path and drank of the cup. Jesus was not immune to the practical realities of worry or the practical need to take care of oneself and family and the necessity of hard work in this life.

As we have said in the last couple of weeks, this passage is part of Matthew's collection (chapters 5-7) of Jesus teaching on ethics and love and whats in God's heart. The beatitudes, the love your enemies and going beyond the law that is written in scriptures to the law that is written on our hearts. And right before these words Jesus says: "Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth. No one can serve two masters - the other one being money. Therefore I tell you". It seems the primary message here is not to always be completely worry free, and happy go lucky, trying your best not to be human like the rest of us; but to think about what is most important in life. And it is probably not the small things, or the insignificant things, or the most expensive ones ---the finest clothes, or the grandest house, or the most expensive car. In our world today we need to see clearly how much of our lives are conditioned and directed by those who want us to buy everything we see or at least everything they make. Spend and keep the economy chugging along. It is your civic duty. The old one you have is not as good as the new one that just came out; work harder, amass more savings/worry about retirement. The advertisers subliminal messages: you are not good enough/or cool enough/ or "with it" enough unless you have bland or do blank. There is a better life out there waiting for you!

And we each have to figure out how we are going to deal with this - honestly. I know I am not going to give up everything and become a monk. I have lots of creature comforts and my life seems indeed better with some of them. But I am going to think about their place in my life. I need to think about how when I worry about money, I probably tend to horde it more or spend even more time at the office earning it. How when I worry about how many suits I have in the closet I forget about children without a decent pair of new shoes in theirs. How when I think about my own well being too much I stop thinking about the others in greater need. How when I think about the material success of the church I forget Gods love which binds us all together is more important.

Maybe during lent I will ask myself if Jesus is so outdated and what might it mean to live a simpler more intentional life under the commercial onslaught of our world. One thing might be to open ourselves to the things Jesus mentions in the passage: the lilies, the birds, the grass. Or the sheer joy of being alive, drawing breath, looking up at the sky, counting blessings, relishing friendships, caring for others, new approaches to strangers and even enemies?

Sometimes worry becomes toxic anxiety and we need to see physicians and therapists and take advantage of medical science. This is a good thing, not a crutch. And I think learning positive internal self talk and self analysis of thought patterns instead of our frequent internal negativity self dialogue can be a positive remedy. Worrying less is something we can all work on. Mediation is great. Remember Jesus prayed a lot.

And we should also think about what Jesus says at the conclusion of this passage: "Your father knows you need material things" (its OK)....."BUT" ......."seek first the kingdom of heaven and God's righteousness". Consciously spend less time on the other stuff. Base your life on...Concentrate on..... (and if you have to worry) - think intently and seriously about: not judging; those who are in need; the beauty of the world and your life (you may be neglecting); forgiving others a lot; showing love and compassion; and how much God loves you (and he wont stop - whether your are sick or well/successful or down in the dumps/ joyful or forlorn/living or dead. And all those other things, Jesus says, will be yours. And you will be at peace. Amen

Rev. Bell. sermon February 19, 2017 (Matthew 6:25)

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