Friday, March 15, 2019

Cultivating Calm and Stillness (Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle)

Living in the Most High’s shelter,
    camping in the Almighty’s shade,
I say to the Lord, “You are my refuge, my stronghold!
    You are my God—the one I trust!”

God will save you from the hunter’s trap
    and from deadly sickness.
God will protect you with his pinions;
    you’ll find refuge under his wings.
    His faithfulness is a protective shield.
Don’t be afraid of terrors at night,
    arrows that fly in daylight,
    or sickness that prowls in the dark,
    destruction that ravages at noontime.
Even if one thousand people fall dead next to you,
    ten thousand right beside you—
    it won’t happen to you.
Just look with your eyes,
    and you will see the wicked punished.
Because you’ve made the Lord my refuge,
    the Most High, your place of residence—
        no evil will happen to you;
        no disease will come close to your tent.
Because he will order his messengers to help you,
    to protect you wherever you go.
They will carry you with their own hands
    so you don’t bruise your foot on a stone.
You’ll march on top of lions and vipers;
    you’ll trample young lions and serpents underfoot.

God says, “Because you are devoted to me,
    I’ll rescue you.
    I’ll protect you because you know my name.
Whenever you cry out to me, I’ll answer.
    I’ll be with you in troubling times.
    I’ll save you and glorify you.
    I’ll fill you full with old age.
    I’ll show you my salvation.” Psalm 91 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last Wednesday, I introduced to you the theme of our conversations on this midweek Lenten evenings - that of “Cultivating and Letting Go.” We’re using a different psalm each week, corresponding to the psalm used each week in the Lenten devotionals we’re using this year. We’re also using elements of Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection.

Tonight, our focus is on letting go of anxiety and cultivating calm and stillness in our lives.

In my late 20’s, I separated from the man who is now my former husband. What we did not understand at the time and fully appreciate was how expensive it was to go through a separation or a divorce. Instead of having two incomes to cover the costs of one household, this change resulted in having to cover the costs of two households.  As a result, it seemed that there was never enough money. For me, this led to many sleepless nights. And, then, to nights when I would wake up sweating, unable to breathe and feeling pain in my chest. I was experiencing what I now know to be anxiety attacks.

Because of my own shame related to our separation and lack of money, I never reached out to anyone for any kind of help or assistance. Instead I kept it all inside and simply lived with it.

I mentioned last week that the focus of Dr. Brene Brown’s research is shame. I also mentioned the theological connection between shame and original sin. That shame is at the heart of our sin. It is deep-seated. It is at the root of many of our individual and societal challenges. It is an ugly part of us. In Jungian psychology, shame is referred to as the “swampland of the soul.”

Now, anxiety is a normal thing for us. We can reasonably be anxious over things in our lives. Yet, when anxiety grows to the point that it begins to take over our life - well, this is a problem. It becomes a psychological disorder. The technical name for this is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. The definition of this disorder is “feelings that extend beyond logical worry in a way that is unreasonable, unwarranted, or uncontrollable.”

In the United States, we are head and shoulders above the rest of the world with diagnosed cases of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

This disorder often arises from a sense that we fail to meet expectations, from feelings that we aren’t good enough. From shame.

And, so, like my response, the typical reaction is to isolate ourselves. To keep our anxiety to ourselves. To not talk about it. If we are fortunate, we have someone who notices. And asks.

Tonight, our reading is from Psalm 91. Notice, beginning with the first verse, that this is the tale of someone who is on a journey. Someone who is “living in God’s shelter.” Someone who is “camping in God’s shade.” It is a picture of a God who is a refuge.

In Hebrew culture, this word “refuge” was understood to be the temple. That space set apart from the world with special protective rights, which included asylum and an obligation to keep peace within its very walls. The temple was a place of sanctuary. And, yet, even though it was a place of asylum, peace, and sanctuary, it was also a place of life. A place central to the community for its festivals. Festivals that included meals, music, and dance. But, mostly, the temple was the place where God promised to be present.

In Psalm 91, this refuge, this temple, this place of sanctuary is not a physical place. But, this refuge is God. Our very God is this place of sanctuary and asylum.

Notice, also, in the psalm, the protective imagery that is used to describe God. 

A walled fortress. Walled cities and forts on the heights provided “secure” refuge for people who lived in surrounding and unprotected villages and farmsteads.

Then, there is the image of God’s wings and the refuge that is found there. Reminding us of the feminine imagery of a mother hen protecting her young chicks. This same imagery is intended to remind us of the protective area in the temple - in the secure area underneath the outstretched wings of the cherubim that protected the holy of holies in that most sacred part of the temple.

Then, notice, God image as protective shield. Particularly, God’s faithful protection. That arrows shot by our enemies will simply bounce off and not strike us.

Then, finally, there is this image of God’s protection that exists day and night, 24/7. All the time.

Given all of these images, how might we respond when we begin to feel anxiety, whether it is normal and reasonable, or abnormal and unreasonable?

According to Brene Brown, the first step is to notice it. To first become aware of when we are feeling it.

And, then, to breathe. At creation, God breathed God’s very breath into us. God’s ruach. God’s very Spirit.

The next step is to practice. To practice seeking out calm and stillness. We’re reminded of the passage from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” And from Romans 8: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Then, lastly, to reach out. Whether it is to a trusted family member, a friend, a counselor, a pastor. We should not be ashamed to reach out and ask for help and support.

Finally, if you noticed the closing of tonight's psalm, it ends with finding “salvation.” The same word that we heard last week in Psalm 51. A word that means healing, wholeness, shalom. Or, according to Brene Brown, wholeheartedness.

This week, as I was reading in our Lenten devotional, I came across these words:

“As we read this psalm during the season of Lent, it serves as a reminder that with God at our side, our trials and tribulations won’t overcome us. More than that, as we look to Jesus and his journey to the cross, we are reminded again of how seriously God took his word to be with us in our suffering. Taking on our sin, our sorrows, and our suffering, Jesus bore them on the cross and laid the foundation for their ultimate defeat. In Christ, God truly has rescued us and shown us his salvation.”

May we continue to cultivate and let go. Amen.

Preached March 13, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Midweek Lenten Worship 1.
Reading: Psalm 91.

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