Anxiety 101

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Matthew 6:24-34

I’d like to begin by teaching you the refrain of a song, one that is a great antidote to anxiety in the face of challenges that seem too big for me to overcome on my own:

You don’t have to move that mountain, just help me Lord to climb it.
You don’t have to move that stumbling block, just show me the way around it.

Sometimes the gospel text for the day opens a door and the preacher has no choice but to walk through it. That’s certainly true for today, because whenever Jesus tells me not to worry,  the first thing I do is…..(exactly).

Right around the time of the 9/11 attacks, I read somewhere that those with acute fear of flying in airplanes experienced a significant decrease in their anxiety levels. Why? Because at last their fears were legitimized. All the ways that well meaning people had told them not worry about flying only made them more anxious. After the attacks, they felt vindicated. They weren’t the irrational ones; there really was something to fear.

Let me make a similar point coming from another direction by reading to you what I consider to be one of the best opening paragraphs in modern fiction. It comes from the novel A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton:

I used to think that if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don’t necessarily sense the motion. I’ve found that it takes two and generally three things to alter the course of a life. You slip around the truth once, then again, and one more time, and there you are feeling for a moment that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.

Same idea; different angles. There are, in fact, things to worry about, both external and internal, the disasters that might come to us from outside and those we are capable of bringing upon ourselves. And so when Jesus, Bobby McFerrin, or anyone else says to us, don’t worry, be happy, there’s a part of us that rightfully responds, you don’t understand. Or, if you’re like me and prone to feelings of spiritual inadequacy, you might feel even worse in your anxiety because Jesus told you to stop worrying, and in this moment, at least, you can’t.

Here is my hope for today: that together we might look at the sources of our anxieties and worries head on; hold in our collective pondering the wide range of anxious responses  we are susceptible to, and do so with humility, compassion, and the best of our resources; and hear in Jesus’ words to us not a scolding admonition or simplistic platitude, but rather an invitation to re-frame our life experience through real encounters with God’s grace lovingkindness. I’d love for you to hear in his words, if you can, an invitation to bring to him all that we worry about. He can help.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that anxiety and worry are complex emotional and cognitive phenomena: Some of us more prone to worry than others. How many of you know the story of the two sisters Martha and Mary from the Gospels?  Briefly, in the story, Jesus goes to visit his friends, Martha and Mary, presumably bringing with him an entourage of followers. Martha immediately gets busy in the kitchen; Mary plops herself near Jesus’ feet, with all the men, and hangs on his every word. Feeling abandoned and irritated, Martha complains to Jesus and asks him to tell Mary to help her in the kitchen. And Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Who are the Marthas among us? And the Marys? We Marthas of the world are more anxious than the Marys; it’s just the way we are. There may also be a generational pendulum in families, or at least there is in mine–the Martha of one generation giving rise to a Mary in the next who in turn raises Marthas. There’s no judgment here: it’s simply good to know that for some of us worry is a more instinctual or habitual response to the world than for others.

Chemical imbalances in the brain also contribute to anxiety and worry. Some of us need the help that medication provides. I resisted this for a long time in my own life. I didn’t think I needed medication; I didn’t want it; the idea of medical dependency scared me. But around 10 years ago, I had a series of experiences, and in that time a good friend, who is both a priest and psychiatrist, gently suggested that I was carrying some burdens unnecessarily.  “Mariann, your life doesn’t need to be this hard,” she said. “You can get help.” And I did. I have since said the same things to others, and maybe it’s something some of you need to hear: Getting help with anxiety can be a very good thing.

There is also a lot of anxiety in the air we breath. One of my teachers called this “free floating anxiety” that attaches itself to everything. While no one is immune from free floating anxiety, it particularly affects people of privilege. I’m not sure why, but the more we have, the more we fear loss.

Before coming to Washington, I lived in one of sweetest and relatively affluent neighborhoods of Minneapolis, where the level of worry about our children was unreasonably and unnecessarily high. I don’t mean to be judgmental. I got caught up in it with regard to our sons. But objectively speaking, our children were more than okay; they were really well off. Still our worries persisted. Some of it was legitimate, most was unnecessary.

So we can hear, in Jesus’ admonitions not to worry, a reminder that there are, in fact, false anxieties, worries that we don’t need to carry. This is “the bread of anxiety” the psalmist writes of that we need not consume. (Psalm 127)  Ann Ulanov, a theologian and Jungian psychologist, describes the same phenomenon as “a false cross” we bear. A false cross, she said, is the cause of real pain. But it’s pain that doesn’t go anywhere. There is no redemptive possibility–it’s just pain. It’s like running on a hamster wheel, exhausting ourselves without forward motion.

We can learn to step off the wheel; we can get down from the crosses we don’t need to be on. And nothing cuts through unnecessary worry faster than concrete engagement with the world. The antidotes for free floating anxiety are large doses of laughter and an intentional focus on the things that matter. Jesus wants that for us: Consider the lilies, he said. Look at the birds. Help someone in need. Engage the real issues of the world Focus on the purpose of your life. Church is the ideal place for all these endeavors. How blessed you are to be part of a faith community determined to focus on the things that matter.  

So thus far we’ve touched upon temperament as it affects anxiety, chemical imbalances in our brain, false anxieties that we can learn to let go of and learn to counter with practices of joy, prayer engagement in the world, and community support for the things that matter most.

Now: let’s turn our attention on those things in your life and mine that are legitimate cause for anxiety, because there are, in fact, things to worry about.  

I had a gathering of friends at my house Saturday night: several were from out of town, only two were Episcopalians. As often happens when people learn that I’m the bishop here, one person asked me what it was like to preach every Sunday at Washington National Cathedral. I told them I don’t preach there often; that I’m in a different church every Sunday. Really, another said. Where will you be this Sunday? I’m going to one of the Episcopal churches on Capitol Hill, I said.

Suddenly the table got quiet. Wow, one person said. What’s life like for the people of that church now? There was real compassion in his voice and others expressed similar wonderment and concern. We weren’t discussing politics, and the conversation didn’t go in that direction. It was simply the assumption on the part of people who don’t know you that belonging to a church on Capitol Hill, and living in this neighborhood, would be a source of stress right now. And from what your rector has told me, they’re right.

So I’d like to hold in compassion with you whatever is going on in your life right now that are causes for genuine worry, and to consider how, as Christians, we are to respond in situations of genuine concern.

This, my friends, is the work of spiritual discernment, which is among the deepest, most important disciplines of a Christian’s life. When we’re faced with challenging circumstances, difficult decisions, uncertain futures, what do we do? How are we to live?

Many years ago a theologian named Urban Holmes defined discernment this way: “the ability to intuit God’s will by a casting a particular question the Christian faces in a given situation before the judgment of the deeper self. The result of discernment will be a willingness to risk decisions and take actions whose surety is enigmatic at best.”

In other words, through this process we call discernment, we develop a greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty, a greater willingness to risk failure in the service of what matters most. Marian Wright Edelman, of the Children’s Defense Fund, put it this way: “I’d rather fail in the things that matter than succeed in mediocrity.”

This kind of discerning work requires us to ask important questions: How does God best speak to you? Where do you go, and to whom do you turn, when you need that kind of direction? For the most challenging life circumstances call for the best of what a life of faith and a relationship with Christ can give us.   

These are the times to lean into prayer and meditation practices, however you might open yourself to hear the still voice of God speaking to you. We need to remember what it feels like to follow our own inner compass so that we’re not as susceptible, as St. Paul said, to being tossed to and fro by every wind that blows our way. As with all spiritual practices, inner listening is not uniquely Christian. The poet and author David Whyte speaks of awakening the “inner captain,” that internal source of authority and clarity, especially needed when we attempt something difficult.

We can do this inner work in many ways: For some, the work is quiet and still, a daily practice of sitting and paying attention to all that comes into consciousness. For others, such pondering requires movement—a walk or a run, anything that engages both body and mind. I read a history of Franklin Delano Roosevelt a few years back, and I learned that when he had a momentous decision before him, he would get sick and take to his bed.I am one of those who “putters” as I ponder. It doesn’t really matter what I do, but I need to be active, and I need quiet, to allow my brain to sort things out and be open to the voice of God.

The fruit of such clarifying discernment, a deeply personal experience, extends well beyond our personal lives alone–they extend broader than we realize, to each realm in which we live and work. Because one of the best things we can do for everyone around us is to learn to manage and regulate our own anxiety. Anxiety creates distortion, like looking at an object through water or listening to a radio through static. Anxiety hinders communication. When we’re anxious, we’re less creative and imaginative, less capable of speaking for ourselves or seeing more than one option, and more likely to blame others for our unhappiness.

The trick is trying not to get too anxious about the anxiety you feel. You can’t eliminate anxiety, but you can learn to deal with it, and to the extent you do, you bring a certain measure of clarity wherever you go. Here’s the thing: you don’t have to be completely calm in a stressful situation. To be helpful, you just need to be a little calmer than those around you. By being the least anxious in the room, you help clear the air, ground the conversation, and promote clarity.

The most important thing to remember is to be present, as fully present as you can to yourself, to God, to those around you, and even present to your anxiety. Of course this is an impossible stance to sustain over time; even the most mature can only manage it about 50% of the time. So give yourself some room to make mistakes, to pick yourself up, and try again.

Remember that Jesus is with you, and for you, until the end of the age; that there is a whole community of people in this church here to support you, and people like me, admirers from a distance, cheering you on.

Sing with me one more time:

You don’t have to move that mountain; just help me Lord to climb it.
You don’t have to move that stumbling block; just show me the way around it.

 

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