January 14, 2018
We don't often read from Lamentations, but this is the prophet Jeremiah pouring out his frustrations, his pain and his complaints to the Lord. Yet listen carefully, while these first verses I'm reading sum up a 16 verse list of complaints many of you might relate to some days, Jeremiah stops complaining and turns to prayer and then to an affirmation of faith. This is what we can do when our frustrations and anxieties get the best of us.
Lamentations 3:17-26, NCV
17 I have no more peace.
I have forgotten what happiness is.
18 I said, “My strength is gone,
and I have no hope in the Lord.”
19 Lord, remember my suffering and my misery,
my sorrow and trouble.
20 Please remember me
and think about me.
21 But I have hope
when I think of this:
22 The Lord’s love never ends;
his mercies never stop.
23 They are new every morning;
Lord, your loyalty is great.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is mine,
so I hope in him.”
25 The Lord is good to those who hope in him,
to those who seek him.
26 It is good to wait quietly
for the Lord to save.
Psalm 37:1-8, 39-40, CEB some very practical advice!
Don’t get upset over evildoers;
don’t be jealous of those who do wrong,
2 because they will fade fast, like grass;
they will wither like green vegetables.
3 Trust the Lord and do good;
live in the land, and farm faithfulness.
4 Enjoy the Lord,
and he will give what your heart asks.
5 Commit your way to the Lord!
Trust him! He will act
6 and will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
your justice like high noon.
7 Be still before the Lord,
and wait for him.
Don’t get upset when someone gets ahead--
someone who invents evil schemes.
8 Let go of anger and leave rage behind!
Don’t get upset—it will only lead to evil.
The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord;
he is their refuge in times of trouble.
40 The Lord will help them and rescue them--
rescue them from the wicked—and he will save them
because they have taken refuge in him.
Matthew 6:25-34, CEV this is the classic text on worry, which fits as an antidote to anxiety
25 I tell you not to worry about your life. Don’t worry about having something to eat, drink, or wear. Isn’t life more than food or clothing? 26 Look at the birds in the sky! They don’t plant or harvest. They don’t even store grain in barns. Yet your Father in heaven takes care of them. Aren’t you worth more than birds?
27 Can worry make you live longer? 28 Why worry about clothes? Look how the wild flowers grow. They don’t work hard to make their clothes. 29 But I tell you that Solomon with all his wealth wasn’t as well clothed as one of them. 30 God gives such beauty to everything that grows in the fields, even though it is here today and thrown into a fire tomorrow. He will surely do even more for you! Why do you have such little faith?
31 Don’t worry and ask yourselves, “Will we have anything to eat? Will we have anything to drink? Will we have any clothes to wear?” 32 Only people who don’t know God are always worrying about such things. Your Father in heaven knows that you need all of these. 33 But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well
34 Don’t worry about tomorrow. It will take care of itself. You have enough to worry about today.
Philippians 4:4-9, NET This is the text on which Max Lucado bases his book Anxious for Nothing, and it will be the focus of our sermons and some studies for the next few weeks. Hear Paul's advice to the Philippians and to us
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! 5 Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is near! 6 Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things. 9 And what you learned and received and heard and saw in me, do these things. And the God of peace will be with you
The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God!
Anxiety Antidotes: Keep Calm & Rejoice in Our God!
I could have been anxious about writing this week's sermon. I'm excited about tackling this topic, because I experienced some unexpected serious anxiety in 2017, and I know many others who suffer with anxiety at some level.
I'm also excited about the books I'm reading. My main source is Max Lucado's Anxious for Nothing which he bases on Philippians 4:4-9, the scripture we just read and which you will hear most weeks in one form or another. I encourage you to continue reading it for yourself at home. I also encourage you to pick whichever verse you most need to hear and memorize it. It will become one of your antidotes to anxiety. Lucado's book is what the Mary Marthas will begin reading this month, but I'd be happy to order it for anyone else who wants to read along. It has potential for additional groups, and I've been asked about online participation from another young friend.
To supplement Lucado's book I wanted to do some reading in brain studies, because the main antidote to anxiety is to refocus your thinking habits. My coach and I talk from time to time about rewiring the brain, because his doctorate is in neuroplasticity. I'm reading studies in cognitive psychology from Martin Seligman in a book my coach recommended, titled Learned Optimism. While he has pursued teaching optimism as an antidote to depression, it is a life view that also helps relieve anxiety.
Finally, I'm reading a book another young friend told me about. Stan Tofer's The Power of Your Brain is written from a Christian perspective and could practically be a Bible study itself. I'll be sharing more of it in the Adult Class on Sunday mornings.
I said I could have been anxious about writing this message this week. I usually write the sermon on Friday mornings. Not this week. I was waiting for one of the books to arrive. My mind wasn't focused. God wasn't ready. I told myself I would start in the afternoon. I was on the phone a lot, tried to do housework, and my mind went in other directions. I told God we should start Friday night, but I was tired, and on the phone, and my mind was blank, so I worked on my chart of accounts and opened the new year in my bookkeeping software instead. I went to bed without starting the sermon, but having read a lot. I told myself and God we really have to start in the morning, because I'm going to the office in the afternoon. Ok, I admit I was getting anxious about the sermon and about end of the year, because I was still waiting on bank statements. But instead of letting the anxiety take over, I gave it all to God, watched a show and went to bed. I slept well. When I woke up, I prayed and this introduction started to flow in my brain, so I grabbed breakfast, clicked on my YouTube playlist and started to type. Five hours later I finally went to the office after lunch.
Well, now you know my writing process, but you also know a little bit of how I handle anxiety. I talk to God. I do what I can when I can. Eating healthy and getting good rest are part of the plan. Reading scripture and studies helps me learn. Listening to music is perhaps my white noise, it's soothing to my brain, but also blocks out some other thought patterns.
Thought patterns are important; they become habits. The unhealthy thought habits need to be changed. This is possible, and God will help you, because God wants you to have healthy ways of thinking and functioning in this world. As we go through this series, we'll be looking at various unhealthy patterns. You'll recognize some that are pitfalls either for yourself or others. Most importantly, we'll look at faith responses to anxious thinking, antidotes that can help you think and live healthier. You'll find they help you in many areas of life, not just with anxiety.
Lucado describes anxiety as "a meteor shower of what-ifs." (Lucado, p. 3) What if I don't pass the test? What if the boss doesn't believe me? What if the doctor says it's cancer? What if the plane doesn't land safely? What if the car skids? What if I fall down and break something? What if...? Many of us think like this on a regular basis. Listen to these images Lucado suggested: 1) it's like you are "perpetually on the pirate ship's plank." That's an uncomfortable place to live! or 2) "You're part Chicken Little and part Eeyore." I've known people who fit both of those, but the combination would be miserable.
Lucado also does a nice job of distinguishing between fear and anxiety. He says they "are cousins, but not twins. Fear sees a threat. Anxiety imagines one." (Lucado, p. 4) That's a big difference! God wired into our bodies appropriate responses to the fear of a real threat, most commonly fight or flight. When the car in front of me suddenly brakes, I quickly decide whether to slam on my brakes or swerve. If I don't respond appropriately there will be a collision.
Anxiety imagines threats that most likely won't happen. It's one thing to be prepared with contingency plans. If such and such happens I could do this or this or this. I plan for those all the time. Anxiety is when I approach every intersection overly cautious because I assume I'm going to get hit.
Anxiety has physical symptoms. As our brain churns, so does our stomach. Our heart beats too fast, preparing for fight or flight that isn't needed. You may even feel like you are having a heart attack. I sometimes lay in bed debating whether I can't breath because I'm anxious or I'm anxious because I can't breath. That hits when my claustrophobia goes into overdrive.
We read in Psalm 37 not to fret or worry, in other words don't be anxious. These can lead to harm. But instead, wait on the Lord, be patient, be still in God's presence. Let God handle it. Trust God! Jesus said the same thing in the Matthew passage from the sermon on the mount. If God can feed the birds and clothe the flowers so well, why do we worry rather than trusting God to meet our needs, too?
Christians are as susceptible to anxiety as anyone else, but we have the antidote, our faith. Among the traps we can fall into, please note that "anxiety is not a sin; it is an emotion." (p.8) Don't let that guilt add to your anxiety. Instead remain calm. Actually, Lucado offers an acronym for CALM which he relates to our Philippians passage.
As you can see, learning to be calm rather than anxious requires retraining our brains to think in new ways. The Bible tells us to do this. "Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. (Romans 12:2)
Martin Seligman wrote, "Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology [prior to his book] is that individuals can choose the way they think." (Seligman, p. 8) This came with Ulric Neisser's work on Cognitive Psychology in the 1960s which began to counter not only the work of Freud that we are shaped by our childhood urges but even of B. F. Skinner on behavior shaped by rewards and punishments. Seligman's team was also influenced by Bernard Weiner's attribution theory, "that the way people think about the causes of successes and failures was what really mattered." (Seligman, p. 40) The team conducted experiments to see what patterns would contribute to a sense of helplessness and giving up. They postulated that the habits we form of how we explain things to ourselves contribute to the responses we choose. In other words we can make a thoughtful response, not just a learned behavior pattern. Seligman and Steve Maier had to adjust their theory after hearing questions from two of the students who worked with them and from John Teasdale in London. Take note, these researchers also had to rewire their thinking after listening to reasonable objections. That's what I'm suggesting we also learn to do, adjust our thinking when our current thought patterns meet reasonable objections.
Let me put it in practical perspective. As I child I concluded I wasn't good enough, based on behaviors and statements of certain adults in my life. I spent the next several decades repeating to myself, "I'm not good enough." So when something went wrong I assumed it was because "I'm not good enough." But that's a lie! I'm not good at everything. There are other things I am very good at. Most importantly, God says I am good enough to do the things God asks me to do, and frankly that's the opinion that matters the most. Add to that the opinions some of you have expressed over the last several years. God has used them to reinforce the message that I am good enough for certain things. Do you see the change in my thought pattern? The thought that "I'm not good enough" may still cross my mind, but it doesn't get to sit there very long. I chase it out by thinking from a different perspective.
Let's look at another example. Someone is facing surgery. With family they listen to all the worst case scenarios that the surgeon is obligated to share. Severe pessimism says it's too scary to even consider the surgery. Healthy skepticism gets second even third opinions and studies the options. Optimism looks at the potential benefits of the surgery. Optimism filled with faith still needs to be realistic about all the possibilities, but after prayerful consideration trusts that God helps them choose the right team and procedure and continues to pray trusting that God will guide the team through the procedure, and God's healing will be part of the recovery. Faith believes that even if the surgery isn't successful, God will still be there to help them through whatever happens. Faith believes that even when death comes, God is there waiting on the other side.
I think faith filled optimism does what Lucado described with the A and L of CALM. It asks God to help and leaves the situation in God's hands. I'll come back to C in a moment, but now let's look at M. To meditate on good things fits what Toler suggests in his introductory chapter. He complains that humans today don't spend much time considering what they think about and goes on to suggest, "the mind left untended becomes a fertile breeding ground for all kinds of destructive or unproductive thinking, which almost always results in destructive or unproductive behavior." (Toler, p. 7) In an earlier work he wrote, "Thoughts become attitudes. Attitudes become actions. Actions become habits. Therefore, ... to live happy, healthy, productive lives...people must care for their minds." (Toler, p. 7)
The point I will often repeat is to replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. When your mind goes into repetitive mode with anxious thoughts (or other negatives), intentionally stop and repeat to yourself a healthier mantra or scripture or song or prayer. There are so many healthy thoughts to choose from! Let God guide you to the right one as you open a Bible or turn on some music. I'll try over the next few weeks to list several options you might consider.
Focus on the positive is what Paul encourages in Phil 4:8. You might make it a spiritual practice to think through or journal that verse. Max Lucado shares such a journal entry from a parishoner whose 13 year old daughter spends a LOT of time in the hospital. She wrote one thing for each positive on Paul's list of whatever is true, worthy of respect, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent or praiseworthy. Can you see how considering these things helped her through the stress and anxiety of her daughter's illness?
Toler quotes Job as an example of a healthy attitude. In the midst of everything taken away from him, this is Job's faith statement in 1:21, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Here's the thing. Toler learned that verse as a child. It's what he heard his father say to their pastor in response to the Toler family home burning to the ground. He writes, "His profoundly positive attitude, keeping a faithful perspective even in the midst of tragedy, was a testament to his singular focus on God. I cried for days afterward, but my father never wavered in his trust that God would take care of us. Looking back, it's clear that he had a healthy mind."(Toler, p. 9) This example of his father's faith continues in the family story.
Who was your example of that kind of optimistic faith, and for whom are you that example?
Toler gives another unusual example from the Old Testament, King Jehoshaphat. Faced with a major threat from three surrounding nations, the King began his very public prayer with “O Lord God of our ancestors, you rule in heaven over all the nations of the world. You are powerful and mighty, and no one can oppose you. 7 You are our God." (2 Chronicles 20:6-7a) Jehoshaphat's response to the crisis was to remind himself and his people that God is still in charge of the universe. He reaffirmed his faith in the God of the covenant, who in Toler's words, "has a history of using that power to act on behalf of his people." (Toler, p. 11) Faced with crises on multiple fronts? Anxiety won't help. Turn to God instead. Put your trust in the ultimate sovereignty of God.
That's the point Lucado wants to make with C. Celebrate God's goodness. Yes, life is going to hit us hard sometimes, like the hurricanes that hit this summer and the winter storms pounding the east last week. Lucado names some of the storms humans face as "the big Ds of life: difficulties, divorce, disease, and death." (Lucado, p. 20) To which I added disaster, damage, danger, decline, and defeat. I'm sure you can add some more from your own life experience. But in the face of all these Lucado recommends Paul's antidote for anxiety.
From prison Paul writes, "Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say rejoice!" (Philippians 4:4) This isn't about your feelings it's about your faith! Don't rejoice because you feel great, but in spite of feeling lousy, rejoice because God is good. You can't rejoice because of your present circumstance? Okay, rejoice because God is still present with you, just as God promised. You don't think you can rejoice because of your long list of worries? Then rejoice as you consider your long list of blessings!
Lucado claims your circumstances aren't as important as your belief system. Well, that's exactly what Seligman and others are claiming in their studies of psychology. Lucado tells the story of a tent his father bought at the army surplus store for family camping trips. It held 12 cots comfortably and the two main poles weren't flimsy aluminum, they were cast iron. As extended family camped together, when a serious storm hit, everyone ended up in this tent, because those strong poles were not going to bend or snap in the wind. (Lucado, p. 19) Rain didn't come through the heavy canvas either. Unlike my lightest tent in a storm, this one wasn't going anywhere! Our faith can be like that tent, based on strong beliefs and covering us even in the midst of life's storms.
For Lucado, one of those beliefs is God's sovereignty which he defines as "God's perfect control and management of the universe." (Lucado, p. 22) On the flip side, he suggests "Anxiety is often the consequence of perceived chaos." (also, p. 22) May I remind you of my favorite interpretations of creation, that God organized the chaos? Rather than giving in to anxiety, God wants us to trust that he is still able to organize the chaos in creative ways. We can't control our world, but I believe God is still actively recreating it every day.
There are so many illustrations, but take a final look at our Old Testament reading from Lamentations. Lament is basically a prayer of complaint, telling God our problems. But notice how Jeremiah turns from complaint in Chapter 3 to praise. Verses 17 - 20:
I have forgotten what health and peace and happiness are.
I do not have much longer to live; my hope in the Lord is gone.
The thought of my pain, my homelessness, is bitter poison.
I think of it constantly, and my spirit is depressed.
But listen as he continues:
Yet hope returns when I remember this one thing:
The Lord's unfailing love and mercy still continue,
Fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise.
The Lord is all I have, and so in him I put my hope.
That's the faith filled optimism that can fight depression, anxiety and other unhealthy thinking in our day to day lives.
Rather than being anxious about the future and the things you can't control, find reasons to rejoice. Celebrate the food God provided today, the clothes in your closet, the bed you sleep in, the many times the car did start, the hours it did get above zero, the days the furnace does work, the times you don't land in the hospital, whatever mobility you had to get here today, and so on and so on and so on. Rejoicing will strengthen your faith and in turn that trust in God will reduce your anxiety.
Keep Calm and Rejoice in our God!
The books referred to in this series are as follows:
Max Lucado. Anxious for Nothing. Harper Collins Publishing, 2017.
Stan Toler. The Power of Your Brain. Harvest House Publishers, 2008.
Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph. D. Learned Optimism. Vintage Books, 2006.
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