Choosing Between Anxiety and Faith

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Mon, 07/18/2016 - 12:00am

Luke 12:25-31 (NLT), Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, July 17, 2016 

            The opposite of faith in the New Testament is not usually the inability to believe but rather anxiety or fear. Jesus asks, “Why do you worry, you of little faith?” Today the struggle that Christians face is not chiefly the struggle against atheism or secularism in the battle for what we call “the culture.” The biggest struggle is against our own anxiety—anxiety about the world, about money, about the church’s survival, and about our lives.

            In the Sermon on the Mount, and in Luke’s version often called the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus starts the section on anxiety with some practical advice—the kind you might expect from the Buddha or Deepak Chopra. (1) Worry doesn’t change anything, so why waste your energy on it? (2) Focus on today, not tomorrow; live in the now. But the deeper advice Jesus gives is not advice we see as practical: Trust God, period. Trust God to see that you have enough to eat and clothes to wear. Our instinct is to correct Jesus: Actually, food and clothing are my job. I trust the work of my own hands to provide those. But Jesus is very clear, and he is saying this to peasants for whom food and clothing were an everyday concern. Don’t worry about it, he says. Trust God. Seek God’s kingdom—his will in everything, his rule on earth—and God will take care of those things you need for survival.

            I don’t buy everything that Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker, says. I am not going to walk on a bed of hot coals to get over my fear of hot coals. But I think he is right when he says this:

We’re not wired for happiness; we are wired for anxiety. We are wired for what’s wrong. We are wired for survival, which means our brain is constantly looking for anything that could hurt us. This serves us well when we’re crossing a busy interstate, but it does not serve us if we permanently lie in that emotional state.

Dr. Anne Marie Albaso of Columbia University says much the same thing. She writes that anxiety is rooted in biology, based on the fight or flight response. But she distinguishes between two forms of anxiety based in two parts of the brain.

(1)  Form one is in the amygdala, the reptilian part deep in the brain. It is this instinctive urge to fight or flee; it stimulates adrenalin and other physiological responses. The amygdala goes awry when it perceives danger that really isn’t there. This is what leads to the irrational forms of anxiety like panic attacks that have no basis in reality.

(2)  Form two, though, is in the cortex, the part of the brain that developed later, the place where we think. It is in the cortex that we worry. Worry is based in reality, but it exaggerates the threat or minimizes the resources for dealing with it or forgets about the power of cooperation. We can worry ourselves into states of anxiety where we can get stuck and upset and generate in ourselves some of the symptoms of panic attacks.

If you assume that our first human ancestors constantly had to avoid being eaten by wild animals or being speared by other tribes, it makes sense that God would have wired us to survive. If you believe in survival of the fittest, it makes sense that the most nervous humans were the likeliest to survive, because they learned how to avoid danger. But now that we are much less likely to get eaten, we are still anxious. And our brains seem to be able to find other subjects to which to attach that anxiety. Jesus is telling us, “Don’t let your reptilian brain rule your life. Don’t live like unbelievers who have no idea that God is watching over them. Don’t live as if you are in this world all alone with no one to help you. Trust your heavenly Father.” And ultimately, I think he was saying, trust one another in the community of mutual love. Let go of your anxiety about the future and live in the security of the daily bread you have only for today, taking joy in that bread and those with whom you share it.

I want us to think this morning about two common forms of anxiety today: anxiety about “the other” and anxiety about money.

We live in a time when anxiety about the other is being fanned into flame. You see it in ISIS’ fear of Westerners, in white fears of young black men, in black fears of white policemen, in Britons’ fear of Europeans and immigrants, in Americans’ fear of Muslims. In every case, there is some very minimal basis in reality for the anxiety, some reason to fear specific members of the group, but thinking in stereotypes allows that fear to be generalized to the whole group. Those who live their lives in such anxiety are vulnerable to leaders who would steer them toward harming those who are different or at least protecting themselves from any contact with the other. As we saw last week in the story of the Good Samaritan, this is not the Jesus way.

Thursday night, in response to the truck attack in Nice, someone took an axe and broke windows at the little storefront mosque at the University of Rhode Island and spray-painted the words “Muhammad, Prophet of Butchers” on the front of the building. This is the mosque where our friend Qutaiba Albluwi is the imam; he spoke from this pulpit in December and came back in May for an ecumenical forum on Understanding Islam. Qutaiba is away in Canada for the summer (where he is a citizen). The first person to discover the damage and start to clean it up was the manager of Subway who visited our church before Christmas. He said it was ugly.

Yesterday, a peace vigil opposing all forms of violence was held at the mosque. I went to represent Harbor Church and the Block Island Ecumenical Ministries, answering the call of the State Council of Churches and our friend Don Anderson. I wish you could all have been there—although you would not have fit in that small space. Hundreds of Christians and Jews showed up. I was lucky to get a seat in front, but half the people had to stand up. Don spoke for Christians, then a rabbi spoke, then the mufti who is the highest ranking Muslim in the state. Then there were speakers who had not been expected: Congressman Langevan, United States Attorney Peter Neronha, and URI President David Dooley. Several members of the congregation spoke, saying that recent events—including the Presidential campaign—had made them feel afraid, but now they knew that they did not have to be afraid. Everyone agreed that we had to stand together for freedom of religion, and that an attack on one house of worship was an attack on all of us. It was tremendously moving.

I was thankful that I had been in that mosque a couple of times before, and that I had been able to share meals with Qutaiba and his family and build a bridge of friendship through hospitality. What I heard from many was that the way to overcome anxiety about the other was through ordinary human contact. While the Congressman called for the vandals to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, one of the members of the Muslim congregation said that he hoped that when the vandals were found, they would come have dinner at his home and meet his children and see how American they are. All the Muslims seemed to agree that the vandals were forgiven.

Those who value diversity and acceptance sometimes talk as if we are living in the worst of times. We have never had to deal with this in America, they say. But the truth is that Americans have always had this anxiety about “the other.” In the beginning, of course, the others were the Native Americans. Then the Africans brought in as slaves. But soon enough, the English settlers who formed the majority developed anxiety about every minority group as they came ashore in waves: first the Germans, then Chinese, then Italians and Poles, then Jews and Japanese. Every one of them was perceived as a threat.

A letter arrived from the American Baptist Historical Society this week reminding us of this phenomenon. In 1919, the Northern Baptists (as they were then known) were worried about immigrants, who made up 25% of the population (today they are 13%). Here’s what our denominational leaders said in a statement:

We have admitted these people…with little question as to their character or their purpose. We…have drawn a wooden horse into our midst. It has suddenly been opened and has poured out thousands who are the determined enemies of our present social order and of our American civilization.

Does that sound familiar? It’s the same old anxiety about the other that now gets aimed at Mexican-Americans and Muslim-Americans. But here’s the good news from 1919. In the face of what they saw as a great peril to American civilization, the Baptists proposed a two-pronged gospel offensive: First, providing education for leaders in each immigrant community; second, opening Christian Centers in congregations and neighborhoods that were home to immigrants. One church in Chicago called it a program of Christian Friendliness. That’s the Jesus way to address the anxiety about the other. And I know one little church on Block Island that has its own program of Christian Friendliness for the foreigners in its community. The President of the University of Rhode Island told me yesterday that he was proud to be a supporter of our International Student Center and that he thought it was one of the best ministries in the entire state.

            Then there is the second anxiety, the anxiety about money that is the main focus of Jesus’ words we read from Luke. For most of us—unlike Jesus’ hearers—that anxiety is not based in worry about survival. We are not likely to go without food or have nothing at all to wear. But we seem no less anxious than the poor. Indeed, it can be argued that the wealthy are more anxious about money than those who have little; the statistics on church giving will tell you that they are clearly less generous, on average, than the poor. I think that anxiety is increased as our sense of self-worth is tied to the amount of money we earn and have.

            Our whole consumer economy is based on creating desire for products that we never knew we needed. The market does not respond to demand; it creates it. In other words, it stirs up covetousness on purpose and encourages self-indulgence. But I think something even deeper is going on. The consumer culture tells us that we cannot be happy unless we have a lot of stuff, and that our standing in our community is based on how much stuff we have.

            Jesus is saying, “Hold on there! That’s a lie! It’s not stuff that will make you happy. And your stuff won’t last. Why not value the things that last—and your relationship with God most of all—the one thing that will last into the next life?” That is all through his teachings. But here he goes further. Your life is based on anxiety, just as your economy is. You work because you worry. You worry because you don’t know if you will have enough. All of your anxiety is based on the premise that you are all alone in this world, that there is no one to care for you, that you have to provide for yourself or starve. The actual reality of the kingdom, Jesus says, is that you are part of a community of sharing, and that you are a child of a God who provides for you as any parent provides for a hungry child. You are acting like the people of Israel in the desert who did not trust God to provide even though he provided every day. Instead, they complained. They worried. And they wanted to go back to slavery because they would rather trust their employers than God.

            Politicians of all parties prey on our economic anxiety. Things are terrible, they all say. Unless you elect me to protect your interests, those other people are going to get all your money: the Chinese, the 1%, the Mexicans, the welfare cheats, the corporations. I’m not going to debate the truth of those statements. I just want to remind you that Jesus does not want you to live in anxiety.  Jesus wants you to live in faith, trusting that he will take care of you. There’s a great line in 1 Peter which the Common English Bible translates nicely as “Throw all your anxiety onto [God], because he cares about you.” Can you do that? Bring your money worries into consciousness right now. I have my own: bills I am behind on, a pledge to the church I’m behind on, worries about retirement income. All of those things are in your backpack, weighing you down every day. Now take that backpack off, and throw it onto God. Here, you take it! I can hear Jesus singing

Take a load off Annie

Take a load for free

Take a load off Annie

And you put the load right on me. [Robbie Robertson]

            Anxiety about money can infect a church. In fact, it infects most churches—to the point where conversations are about survival rather than mission. A church that spends more energy raising money than reaching out to the lost and needy is an anxious church. A church that spends more time thinking about how to fix the building than about how to fix the community is an anxious church. Jesus is saying to us, “Hey, Harbor Church! Take a load off! Throw your anxiety over onto me. Trust in your heavenly Father to provide. Has he not provided for you in the past? Did he not give you this building as a free gift? When you cast your net out this spring with a mailing to your neighbors, thinking that a $5,000 goal was ridiculously wishful thinking, did your Father not bring you over $21,000 in return? Did he not fund the International Student Center from unexpected sources?

            I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be part of an anxious church. I want to be part of a joyful church, a singing church. Because I know my Father loves me, I know that Jesus saved me and called me to follow him, and I know his Spirit is at work in our church today. “There’s within my heart a melody Jesus whispers sweet and low: Fear not, I am with thee, peace, be still.” It’s all right, child, I got this. Don’t you worry. Don’t you fret.