ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 4, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Isaiah 43: 1 – 7 & Mark 4: 35 – 41
When my 4-year-old daughter was learning to ride her bike, I was outside watching to give her moral support. She was wearing her helmet and it took a try or two to get the hang of it. One time fearing she was losing control she stopped near a lamp post and bonked her head. She dropped the bike and came running to me, very anxious. She was distressed and told me through her tears, “Mommy, I broke my brain”. She was convinced a broken brain led to certain death. It was all I could do not to laugh, yet to her it was real and quite terrifying. So, I took off the helmet, inspected it, felt her head, look in her ears and told her that her brain was fine; she didn’t need to worry. After my reassurances, she went back and mastered the art of bike riding. Sarah was never in danger. I knew that even if she didn’t. I was there watching over her. I was an “anxiety free presence” in an anxious moment.
Everybody worries. Everyone has anxious moments when fear overwhelms us. Some people worry more than others. In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman states that 15 – 20 percent of children are prone to timidity. Just like some people are born with green eyes, some are born anxious. For some, worry becomes an obsession. During our lifetime, many people develop periods where worry is so intense, it is deemed an anxiety disorder. In extreme instances, a person may have a panic attack – complete with all the symptoms of a heart attack. Some people don’t just worry – worry’s their hobby. For others it’s a sport and they’re a gold medalist. Often if I wake up in the night for no reason, I’ll decide it’s a perfect time to worry and proceed to do so with gusto. Maybe you worry that you worry too much. Maybe you can’t remember the last time you worried, so you worry that you’re not worried. Worry is a worrisome part of our human condition.
In the passage we read from Mark, the disciples are worried. A storm had whipped up on the Sea of Galilee. The S of G is a low-lying lake surrounded by cliffs. At one spot, there’s an opening in the cliffs which intensifies the strength of the wind. When the wind is fierce, it can whip through the valley and stir up the lake in seconds, making it a churning cauldron. Although experienced sailor’s the disciples couldn’t control the boat. The water was coming over the edges faster than it could be bailed out. They were certain this was the moment of their death. In the meantime, Jesus was in the boat having a nap. The disciples woke him up in sheer panic. Jesus got up and told the wind to be still. It stopped. The lake grew calm and a peace settled over the landscape and over the disciples. Jesus was an “anxiety free presence”. He embodied peace. What allowed Jesus to be peaceful when everyone around him was spreading the “fear flu”? Jesus knew that no earthly situation has the power to put us outside of the care and watchful eye of our heavenly Father. Even when we feel all is lost, God knows we’re not in any real danger. Even death can’t hurt us. He’s taken care of that already.
People often struggle with their worry because we see it as a weakness, yet people who suffer from anxiety or panic attacks need a lot of courage simply to do the normal things others take for granted. If you’ve never experienced that depth of fear, count your blessings, but hold off on the judgement. Facing our fears takes more strength than not having any. Christians may also see their fear as a lack of faith. We worry we’re disappointing God. Is worry a sign of spiritual failure? No. No one worries on purpose. Anxiety is a feeling. God understands we’re all wired differently. While we may want to confess our fear to God and ask for help in overcoming it, guilt serves no purpose in moving us beyond our worries. Does worrying mean we’re far from God? God isn’t distant from anything or anyone in his creation. Our worry doesn’t make God less present, but it may make us less aware of his presence. Peter encourages us to “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). God wants us to live without fear not because it affects him, but because it affects us, robbing us of abundant life. He cares about us and wants us to know be free from worry.
Does that mean God shelters us from all fear inducing situations? No. Jesus never told us “If you follow me, you’ll never have problems.” In fact, he told us “In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties” (John 16:33). Jesus himself had many problems. He was always getting into trouble with the authorities, who eventually killed him. He warned us, “If they beat on me, they will certainly beat on you” (John 15: 20). Scripture tells us that the people God used the most, were not living care-free lives and they were not fearless. Abraham left a familiar, secure life to go to an unknown land and create a great nation. Moses was told to confront Pharaoh and deliver the Israelites to freedom. David faced Goliath. Elijah confronted 700 prophets of Baal. Daniel was thrown into a den of lions. None of these people escaped conflictual, potentially deadly situations. All of them had enemies. We can bet all of them were fearful. They’d have been insane not to be anxious. God doesn’t want us to be fearful or anxious, but peace doesn’t come from finding a lake with no storms. It comes from having Jesus in the boat. No one becomes the person God envisions you to be, by remaining comfortable. Just as Jesus was the “anxiety free presence” for the disciples, the Holy Spirit is our “anxiety free presence”. As Paul writes, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1: 7).
So, what helps us to live worry-free? How might we outgrow our timidity and fears? The two previous scriptures show us the way – God wants us to have a spirit of power, love and self-discipline. He wants us to know we can bring our fears to him, because he loves us. John reminds us, “There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear” (1 John 4:18). When we live in the flow of the Spirit, we let God’s love wash over us and our fear gets swept away. When we receive love, a healthy sense of empowerment takes root in us. Children have two needs: “roots and wings”. The need to be safe and the need to explore. Learning to ride a bike is a microcosm of our life experiences. We go out, get on the bike. We’re full of fear. We fear we’ll fall off and hurt ourselves. We’re fearful our friends will laugh at us. We’re fearful we’ll fail and disappoint our parents. We’re fearful we’ll lose control and “break our brain.” Our hearts beat faster, our hands sweat, our mouth is dry, our muscles are tense. And, sure enough, we bonk our head and run to our “anxiety free presence” who hugs us, reassures us, comforts and protects us. But before long a voice inside us says, “I can go out and face the world again.” Perfect love casts out fear.
Dr. Harry Harlow, a research psychologist, studied the need for love in monkeys. He discovered that if monkeys had all their physical needs met, but were isolated, they languished. Monkeys given a soft cloth, did better – the feel of the cloth met their need for touch. Harlow then gave one monkey a “wire mom” with a bottle attached and a “terry-cloth mom” with no food. The monkey spent 1 hour a day with the wire mom and 17 hours with the terry-cloth mom. Then Harlow made a scary monster. When the monster appeared, the monkey was terrified. Without hesitation he ran from the monster to his terry-cloth mom, his only source of comfort. At first, the monkey shook with fear wrapping his body around “her”. Slowly he calmed down. After a time, his whole demeanor shifted; he glared at the monster, giving it a menacing look and snarls. Love casts out fear. God’s love us perfect; imagine it’s power over our fears! So, when do you experience God’s love? Where? With whom? Reading scripture, praying, breathing, singing, in worship, within a group, with a particular person? Wherever it is, figure it out and run to it. Spend as much time as possible soaking up God’s love.
It’s not enough to borrow peace from God, we need God’s serenity. We need the Christ’s peace, to live in us. Paul says that when we’re in consistent prayer, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). The word “guard” is a military term used in Greek to describe the work of a sentry watching a city. Today it might describe the security officer at an airport or the bodyguard of a political leader. These guards are on the alert for enemy attacks; they screen for every possible threat; they’d take a bullet for you. Our thoughts are spiritually charged. Some equip us for living: “God loves me. God is with me. God fills me with his peace. God has taken a bullet for me.” Some rob us of life: “I’m inadequate, unlovable, alone. Things are going to go badly. I will be hurt.” Jesus has taken a bullet for you. The Holy Spirit is willing to stand guard over our thoughts, keeping the destructive ones out and letting the life-giving ones in. Prayer, in this case giving God our worries, is the part we play in this process.
Another way we live in the flow of the Spirit is to face the challenges that come our way, despite our anxious thoughts. We need to face our fears. Rather than hide away as helpless victims, we need to embrace the power the Spirit gives us. A few years ago, Terry and I went tree top trekking. Before starting they gave us the run down; showed us what to do and assured us the cords were secure – nothing to fear. I’ve never been good with heights. The cords were wobbly. I could fall and be injured. I could make an idiot of myself. The cords may not hold. A carabiner looks flimsy. Anxiety started to flow. Death loomed before my eyes. Be assured, I was praying. I climbed the ladder. I looked at the cords. I attached the carabiners to secure my rope, and sure that I was firmly connected, I stepped out and faced my fears. After a couple courses, what I had feared actually became enjoyable. I came away feeling victorious. I had one less “fear” to fear.
In this world, some terrible things will happen to us and some wonderful things will happen to us. We can go through life anxious or at peace. We can avoid our fears or tackle them. The only way we get the peace of Christ into our body and spirit is by attaching ourselves to God and stepping out to confront our fears. We place ourselves in the Spirit’s flow when we’re firmly connected to God, the source of all love and ready to face our fears. Only when we are, do we run the risk of saying with Jesus, “Take heart! I’ve conquered the world” (John 16:33).