Some of you know that my family recently placed a “Little Free Library” outside our home. Weekly, I check on the books and tidy up, as needed. Monthly, I try to rotate the books, clearing out old titles and inserting new ones. This past weekend, I found a book in there that was basically a treatise on the why the world is coming to an end. It gave me a start. I wasn’t expecting it. But clearly, someone thought that another person could identify with the fearful times contained within. For a while, I wondered if I would censor it or read it or simply ignore it. Perhaps surprisingly, I did not remove it.
Instead, I decided to use it as an opening illustration for this message on anxiety.
We all experience anxiety at some time or another. For some, our anxiety is acute. It is a regular and natural response to some impending threat. My child runs into the street. Besides yelling my fool head off, I experience the heart palpitations of a mother who fears for her child’s safety. Families of color are experiencing more than justified anxiety around the safety of their sons (and daughters) in various public and private places, both day and night. I can’t imagine carrying such anxiety around with me. When I put my children on the school bus in the morning, I experienced a twinge of anxiety, but not the kind that would keep me awake wondering if my children would come home alive. And yet, when I watch the news, my fears spike with every mass shooting, every breakdown in our governmental process, and with every tear in our communal fabric. Anxiety and fear remind me that something important is at stake and that I have not gone completely numb.
Chronic anxiety is anxiety that is excessive, generalized, and doesn’t seem to have a direct cause or reason. It is persistent and does not abate with the passing of danger. For many, undue anxiety is a medical condition and treatable through a combination of therapy and drugs. However, whether chronic or acute, we recognize fear because we recognize our body’s response to fear: our heart beats faster, our hands may get clammy, our thinking grows foggy, our throat constricts, and it seems as if we cannot breathe or even move.
Over and over again in our bible, God and God’s representatives say, “Do not fear.” This may seem sacrilegious, but when someone—even God’s representative—tells me not to fear, I find that I sometimes fear even more. I wonder if you have had a similar response?
When we look at the world and our nation today, we may have plenty of reasons to believe that that the world is ending or that life as we know it has imploded. I don’t need to recount current events. It really isn’t that helpful. Fear and anxiety—whether chronic or acute or some combination of both—can paralyze us spiritually. It can cause us to lose hope in the future and suffer an existential crisis of our own purpose here on earth. While the bible admonishes us not to fear—it also gives us characters who have moved through their fear and come thru to the other side. It gives us stories that show us that fear, while very human, does not need to immobilize us. God and God’s representatives know that our knees and hands, hearts and voices will quake regardless, but they urge us to collect ourselves and move forward regardless.
Do you remember Abram? He’s got 75 years under his belt and God tells him to take his wife and all his possessions, leave his home and his kin, and basically start over again in an unknown land. Abram most certainly experience anxiety and fear, if not in the planning of the trip then when his party finally reached Egypt. Abram lies from his fear and tells his Egyptian hosts that Sarai was his sister and not his wife. And yet Abram survives Pharaoh’s wrath and God guides him on the way.
And what about Jacob? He surely feared encountering his angry brother, Esau, and his brother’s army. He did not know what to expect, what vengeance his brother might exact for past grievances, or what might happen to his wives or children. He sends gifts ahead of him to appease his brother, divides his family into 2 separate companies out of fear of attack, lays down his head at night not-quite-alone, and wrestles with an angel until he limps away at daybreak. And yet, through his fear, God is with him, and greets him with kindness as his brother—in peace.
And then there is Mary. Pregnant, young and uncertain, greeted by an angel bearing news that this was a blessed event in her life and that she was favored by God, as if having an angel showing up in your bedroom is not anxiety-inducing, not to mention the message of a coming savior in her womb.
There are even more stories and characters like this in the bible. Rereading these stories can give us courage for our own troubled circumstances and times. What these stories convey—in their totality—is not that humanity won’t suffer or that terribly hard things do not happen, but that there are resources within us and within God’s very self and within the larger community that we may draw upon in confronting the hardest things. There are the words, ‘Do not fear,’ yes. But there is more. There is the promise that we will be accompanied in our fears, that we will not struggle by ourselves when we lay down at night, that seen and unseen angels will wrestle with us and help us to discern through the fear our next steps. There is prayer; there are companions, dreams, and rituals to help us process. There is this too: God has a heart of justice and a heart for the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. We see it in today’s passage from Isaiah:
God is here, right here,
on [the] way to put things right.
And redress all wrongs.
God’s on the way! God will save you!”
Blind eyes will be opened,
deaf ears unstopped,
Lame men and women will leap like deer,
the voiceless break into song.
The Bible and the God about which it speaks knows that human fear can paralyze. And that paralysis is a tool for the Devil or the ill-intentioned to take hold. Because paralysis can be so frightening, doing its opposite– moving forward, finding breathing room, and taking the next step and the next step– will counteract immobility.
Does your fear tell you to crawl under the covers? Pull the covers back, make your bed, and prepare for an unknown journey like Abram.
Does your anxiety tell you to avoid your sister or brother? Remember Jacob. Make amends, reach out, and find small ways to take steps towards reunification.
Is someone or something telling you that the promise of a new life, new identity, or new purpose growing inside of you is less-than-wanted, less-than-possible, or something less-than-beloved? Remember Mary and declare your own magnificat to the Lord for the goodness growing inside of you. Turn away your fear with the trust that God is working within you and even within these circumstances. Even if you cannot fully believe this, doing something positive in spite of your fear will help to loosen the grip of anxiety over your life. Doing something beyond ruminating on your anxiety gives you a sense of self-determination despite a loss of control of circumstance.
In Isaiah, a vision of hopefulness and well-being will permeate the people. The barren places shall yield flowing streams, springs of water shall pool in burning sands. When we are anxious and afraid, we have difficulty imagining relief for our pain…We thirst for protection, help, healing, and aid. We feel scorched by our circumstances and humbled by our sudden vulnerability to life and its madness. Comfort feels far away and out of reach. Yet, God paints a different vision to enable us to imagine life in the barest of deserts and to imagine that we can bloom in the most disheartening of situations. God is on the way, even as we cry out. In reminding ourselves of these visions, we are not rendered hopeless even if we feel helpless.
In this season of new beginnings, new schedules, and new opportunities, give yourself the tremendous gift of imagining a new vision for your life. Imagine God coming to you on the way; imagine growth in the desert and water that quenches your parched throat. Study some of your favorite characters from scripture and look for the ways that they move beyond their fear. Do this so that the next time anxiety or fear threaten to overwhelm you, you will dare to take that fear in your hand and look at it long… lovingly, and with curiosity. And then, after spending time with those feelings, move your body and say to your soul, “I will trust in God at all times; [I will] pour out my heart before God, for God is a refuge for me.” (Psalm 62:8, adapted)