Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sermon Notes: "Thinking About Worry"

Exodus 32:1-6, 15-20; Psalm 94:19

“When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, thy consolations delight my soul.”

Howard Thurman was a black Baptist minister and theologian who used to write meditations to be read and used by the members of his church, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples which began in 1944 in SanFrancisco and continues to this day. At the beginning of one meditation on the subject of worry he quotes a little rhyme called the “Worry Cow.” It goes like this:

The worry cow
Would have lasted till now,
If she hadn’t lost her breath.
But she thought her hay
Wouldn’t last all day,
So she mooed herself to death.

Thurman goes on to say of worry:

Most often . . . worry is a lack of confidence in life, in its purpose, in God. Faith in life, in God, is native to the human spirit. It cannot die as long as a man lives. It turns into pessimism, into depression, into anxiety, into worry, into drawn-out fear, but it will not perish. . . when we worry, the most obvious things to do in our situation are overlooked, we should relax our tension by trusting in God and putting at the disposal of that trust a clear head.

I want to focus on two particular points Thurman makes as a way of understanding our scriptures today. One point is this: 1) when we worry we overlook the most obvious things to do in our situation of concern; 2) if we can relax our tension, our natural faith in life, in God arises and we can offer to God a clear heart and mind.

Our second scripture today says: “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, thy consolations delight my soul.” The Psalmist had found his way from anxiety to trust in God. But, many times in human life, we get lost in our anxiety, we get lost along the way.

Our first scripture today was about such a time of lostness among the Hebrew people. As I was thinking this week about the Ten Commandments, I was remembering the rest of story of the Exodus that I don’t tell each week. I tell of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery. I tell of the giving of the Holy Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but I don’t tell of how those first two tables of stone were shattered into pieces before Moses even told the Hebrew people what was written on them.

And, the reason I am referring to this incident is because while the Hebrew people waited for Moses to come down from the cloud of darkness on the mountain, they got anxious – they got real worried. They were in the wilderness, and for all they knew Moses was dead and they had no one to lead them. They were overwhelmed with anxiety; they were desperate to have something to rely on to calm their nerves (they didn’t have xanax back then or valium). And, they hadn’t had time to grow grapes and allow them to ferment. There they were at the foot of the smoking mountain, scared to death and needing some assurance of religion, needing the assurance of some god. So, they went back to the religion they had known before. They asked Aaron to make them gods to worship –that would go with them and save them. And, so he made an idol.

And, they were having a real religious celebration and worshipping these false gods and relieving their tension when Moses finally came down from the mountain with two tables of stone in his hands. You heard the rest of the story. Moses got so mad, he broke the tables of stone, grabbed the false gods, the golden calf, ground it into dust and put it in the water and made the people drink it!

Their anxiety led them into idolatry. Idolatry is to submit yourself to some force or being or substance that should have no such power over you. The high or relief feels good for a time, but then it passes leaving you lower than before. That is the emotional side of idolatrous living. In the end, it is demeaning, because human beings are made in the image of God and are not to bow down to anything in all the earth but the living God.

We don’t make idols of golden calves any more, but we still bow down to people and forces and things that don’t deserve such homage. A more clear way of stating the first commandment for us might be: your girlfriend can’t save you so quit spending all your time serving her and serve the living God; your drinking can’t save you from worry so quit spending all your extra money and time serving the bottle and serve the living God; your boyfriend can’t save you; and, if you don’t have a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife and you want one, remember, they can’t save you either; your looks can’t save you – so quit wasting all that time and effort on that; quit bowing down to these idols and trust in the living God for salvation in this life and the next.

Their anxiety led them into idolatry. But, the people could have alleviated their anxiety in some other way, but turning to the wrong solution for anxiety and worry is such a common, human mistake. It may be at the root of most of our problems in life.

I return to Howard Thurman’s two points about worry: 1) when we worry, we tend to overlook the very things that we need to do to address a problem; 2) when we can relax the tension, faith in life and God arises, clearing our mind and giving God room to work with us and through us. We are not created for idolatry but to worship the living God – that is what is natural to us. If that is what is natural to us, then why does our anxiety so often lead us to idolatry instead of reliance on God? How do we relax the tension and rediscover the goodness within? This is not simply a question about how to relieve a psychological problem but a crucial question about how to keep a psychological state from turning into a devastating problem, idolatry, that twists body and soul.

The Hebrews who were waiting for Moses in anxiety could have surely done a few practical things to help themselves, like set up camp, prepare a fire, seek out some food from the land. And, they could have worshipped the One who brought them across the Red Sea, instead of looking to a lifeless golden calf made by Aaron for their help. But, when we turn ourselves over to something or someone who has no business ruling over us, we become so much less than we are meant to be. Or, as I heard someone say once: “When you bow down to stupid, you become stupid.”

The Psalm writer shows us a better way: “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, thy consolations delight my soul.” Somehow this holy man had found a way into God’s presence in the midst of his worry. He had been able to experience God in the depths of his soul and feel a calm repose of heart and mind. When we turn ourselves over to God, we become so much more than we ever dreamed we could be.

So, why is it that the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai found their way from anxiety to idolatry, whereas the Psalmist found his way from anxiety to worshipping and trusting in God?

Why is it that one woman who is anxious finds her way to praise God or rest in God while another woman finds her way to some hydros or a bottle of vodka or crack to relieve her anxiety? Or, why does she find her way to God one day and fall into the hands of false gods on other days?

And, for many of us, we have known two very different ways of relieving anxiety: through over consumption or even addictive behavior on one hand; but also we have known healthy ways like moderate exercise, fellowship, prayerful solitude to relieve our anxious thoughts, communal worship, or perhaps we have had some good counseling or proper medication as well. God’s help comes in a number of different way.

Thurman says: When we worry, we ignore the very things we need to do to address the concern.” And, he adds: “If we can offer to God a clear mind and heart, God can really do something with us and through us.”

But, how do we get to that place of having a clear mind and heart? How do we get there, so that we can see clearly what needs doing and have the resolution to do it? It is all good and well to say to someone: “trust in the Lord,” but trust in the Lord is an experience you have to find your way to, not some ritual you can enact or state of mind you can always will.

I think we can start right now with seeking God’s Holy Presence in this time of worship and trying to let our anxious thoughts come to rest before God.. Stop trying so hard to think your way out of your worry. Just let your thoughts run until they run themselves out before God. Some scriptures might help us with that right now. “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, thy consolations delight my soul.” “Be still and know that the Lord is God.” “O, Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great or too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul. Like a child at its mother’s breast, like a child that is quieted, is my soul.” We will find our way to trust and peace with God when we learn that we enter into the place of holiness – not by coming to a place of knowing, but by coming to a place of not knowing, not by getting ourselves all full of ideas and inspiration, but by emptying ourselves of all thoughts and presumption. I have calmed and quieted my soul . . .

This is the inner path to peace.

But, there is also an outward path of human fellowship that leads to peace. Sometimes our need for shelter or friendship or medical care or food are just so pressing that it does little good for someone to tell us: “Trust in the Lord,” when we are in desperate need of these necessities of life. Maybe those of us with these necessities ought to be turning those words back on ourselves:”trust in the Lord,” and sharing what we have with others, trusting that God will take care of us. Then, a feeling of belonging and the ability to relax in the human community will come to those of us in need – whether those desperate needs be shelter or friendship or medical care. The inner path to peace; the outer path to peace – they are the same path of faith and trust in the living God who cares for body and soul, who calls us to care for self and other. They go together. We will always need to take the inner path, but we must not forget the importance of the outward path to peace, because we are created both for solitude and for community. We come to true peace when we know how to walk both paths with God and each other.

And, when we take ourselves too seriously, we can turn to the little rhyme and maybe laugh at our worrying selves a little:

The worry cow
Would have lasted till now,
If she hadn’t lost her breath.
But she thought her hay
Wouldn’t last all day,
So she mooed herself to death.

What good does our worry do us?

In their anxiety, in their worry, the Hebrews worshipped a golden calf. Now, I doubt if any of us – even in our greatest anxieties -are likely to worship any golden calves. But, we may have been serving the worry cow lately instead of the living God, bowing down days without number to the way of the worry cow instead of the life-giving ways of our Creator God. . . wearing ourselves out with worry which Jesus said wouldn’t add a day to our life, and as we are finding out might end up taking days away from our life.

Our anxiety does not have to lead us into idolatry. Anxiety or worry is something that comes with living, and we can share it with each other and that helps it subside, and we can share it with God who will in turn share his peace with us.

God has revealed to us the way to peace: it lies in that native faith in God and life in the depths of our souls and that native trust in each other that waits to be discovered and celebrated.

As the prophet Isaiah was inspired to say: “In quietness and trust is your strength; in rest and returning you shall be saved.” God calls you to take the inner path of solitude, and the outward path of human community. Let those of you with ears to hear listen to the what the Spirit is saying in your own life.

May God have mercy on you and me and help us to hear this message in our minds, but also in the depths of our hearts where we need God’s help so badly.