Saturday, December 17, 2011

Stress and Fear (Psalm 56:2-4, 10-13; Luke 1:26-38)

When we examine the reasons our lives seem to overwhelm us now more than they ever have, some of the reasons are external -- we agree to take on too much and so we lose the time we would take to rest and recharge, and we also lose our ability to notice and respond to the world around us.

But some of them are more internal, and they play their own role in wearing us out and pushing us towards just existing in life rather than savoring it as God intended. Both the internal and the external sources produce this kind of stress, at levels that cause way more problems than they solve. Some stress, of course, is not only inevitable but even beneficial. The only people without stress are those six feet deep -- everyone else has a little in their lives, and it turns out we sort of need it.

Without any stress, systems will stay at rest. Engines won't move, nothing will happen. Without any stress, we wouldn't deal with our lives. The thought of an upcoming test in school or deadline on a project at work brings a little bit of stress to our lives: Someone's going to evaluate our knowledge of a subject, or someone's going to expect our tasks to be completed. Will we measure up on the evaluation or finish the job adequately? Until we get the grade or our the "Well done" we will stress a little over the outcome.

We face problems when we have too much stress, just like an engine that overloads. Rather than helping us and getting us going, it wears us out. The too-busy schedule feeds our stress, but so does something else, and it's something the Bible tells us God addresses over and over again. In this case, there is a clear biblical guideline as to one way to reduce our stress: Do not be afraid.

That sounds almost too simple to be true, and in any event we might not believe we fear all that much. But if we really examined our lives, we would probably find a lot more fear there than we realized. Or we might find a lot of worry, which is sort of like a more diffused version of fear.

Again, fear is a natural response to certain things and it's healthy in the right places. Almost all living things have fear responses in them that help prepare their bodies to either escape or fight a threat. The pulse speeds up and oxygenates the blood, making the body ready to run away faster or to maintain its pace longer -- or to fight off an attacker. Adrenaline floods the system for the same purpose. We teach children to be alert when they cross the street or alert for the danger posed by someone they don't know. Some of that teaching is designed to help them recognize dangers that might require the body's natural fear response.

Our problem comes when we find ourselves afraid of things that we either shouldn't be afraid of or we can't control. A twenty-four hour news cycle needs things that will make people watch it, so stories are teased in ways that might make us worry about missing something important and harmless things may be blown out of proportion. After all, thunderstorms are gray and white. So why is the heaviest rain shown in red on the radar screen during the "Weather Alert!" -- surely not because we associate red with danger and therefore we're afraid of what we might miss if we don't watch, right?

To oversimplify it a little, fear or worry about things we need to deal with is actually a good thing. But fear or worry about things we can't control or that really aren't all that likely to happen isn't. Fear that a truck will ruin your whole day if you cross the street without looking is useful; fear that a satellite in orbit will fall on your head isn't. The second kind of fear, fear that can't actually help us in any way, creates and adds to our stress because we can't do anything about it.

And to all such fears, God says, "Do not be afraid." His words intend a specific kind of comfort, though. When God tells the people in the Bible and through them, tells us not to be afraid, he does not say that bad things will never happen to us. When God tells parents not to be afraid, he does not mean that their children will never hurt. When he tells us believers not to fear, he does not mean they will never face persecution. He means that in these cases and in all others he will not leave us, no matter what happens. He will not leave us, he will never leave us, in spite of anything that we may undergo.

Mary had to be afraid, not only of the appearance of the angel but of the possible consequences of a pregnancy out of wedlock. In her culture, that could mean death. She definitely believed that God's will would be done through her but she had no ironclad guarantees, no magic potion to whisk her away if she was accused of adultery, no mystic scroll to call on a mighty warrior guardian.

She had only the angel's words that told her not to be afraid, and in the end we have the same thing whether we heard them from an angel or read them in our Bibles or sensed them during prayer.

Do these words matter? Maybe those magic potions or whatever would be a lot more useful to us than a simple promise from God that he will not desert us. When we analyze them, we realize that they don't shield us from bad things happening to us or those we care for. The bad things are just as likely to happen with those words as they are without them. Could the worst still happen, even though God is with us? Yes, it can, because God makes no promises about keeping the worst things away. He didn't keep it away from his own son, so we have no credible reason to believe he'd keep it away from us. The worst thing can still happen.

But to borrow a phrase I've heard in some other sermons, God promises us this: The worst thing is never the last thing. The cross was not the end; the empty tomb awaited. On that we can depend, and it is on that promise we can build lives that are not ruled by fear.

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