"Moving Off Square One"
Text: Luke 12:11-12, 22-31
Psalm 55:1-7, 22
In the four years leading up to my entering theological seminary, I experienced perhaps the greatest period of anxiety in my life. As I tried to accept the fact of God’s claim on my life, and wrestled with God’s call for me to pursue Christian ministry as my primary vocation, I worried about every possibility and implication of God’s claim and call.
There were some cold, hard facts I had to deal with. I knew that if I was to be a minister in the Presbyterian Church, I would have to spend long years - in fact, the rest of my life - in study. It had been almost a decade since my graduation from college. And I can assure you, I was no academic ball of fire at Geneva College; more like a snuffed candle. So how would I study at a graduate level? I worried that I wasn’t smart enough; that I wouldn’t be able to cut it or hold my own. May- be my brain cells had shriveled up from too little stimulation, or too many vodka martinis over dinner with business clients.
Then I worried about the long process of going under care of the massive Pittsburgh Presbytery. How would I articulate my faith properly? Would I be accepted as a fitting candidate with potential for ordained ministry of word and sacrament? How would I get through the grueling battery of psychological and theological interviews and examinations?
Even if I was somehow able to get through all that, how about the finances? How would I support my family on a student’s lack of income? We had two children by that time, and a mortgage, and car payments, and the many other monthly bills. How would they get paid? Could I expect Vale to shoulder the burden of being the primary breadwinner while I was in school? Count- less times, I would sit at my desk and prepare a balance sheet. In one column, I would list what I would have to pay out every month. In the other column, I listed what Vale and I could expect to bring in every month. Never once did the columns come close to balancing. It appeared to be a red ink nightmare!
And on top of all that, I was terrified of public speaking. Now there was a great quality for a preacher. What would happen when I looked out over a congregation, and in my anxiety, become short of breath, or faint dead away? Lord, I think you got the wrong guy!
Four years of this unrelenting anxiety. Four years of non-stop worry. Four years of frittering, and fussing, and fidgeting, and fretting. And where did it get me? NOWHERE! For those four years, although I lived my day-to-day work, home and family life, I was for all intents and purposes immobilized by my anxious and worrying mind. In four years, I never moved off square one.
It was not until one night in January 1988 that the Lord spoke to my heart, and I allowed Jesus Christ full access into my life. Among many other things in the days and weeks following, I was reminded of a passage of Scripture I knew well: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious.” At thirty-two years of age, Jesus Christ began to bring healing to my worrying mind. I say began be- cause thirty years later, this healing is still in process. I tend to worry more than I should about things over which I have absolutely no control. I can’t fix the problems my adult children and their children may be facing in their homes and lives. I can’t determine the course or outcome of events in the Middle East or North Korea, or track the movement of ISIS terrorists in the U.S. or abroad, or control what the President tweets in the early hours of the morning. I can’t do anything about the fact that my roof, and my automobile, and my body are getting older, and may need some repair work in the near future. But I’m still learning; learning to do that which is within my scope of control, and leaving the rest in God’s hands.
How well Jesus recognized the immobilizing power of anxiety; the utter worthlessness of worry. It is a state of mind which can paralyze the will. The word “worry” in its Anglo-Saxon root is “wurgen” which literally mean “to choke” or “to strangle.” This is, in effect, what worrying does. It metaphorically clutches its victims by the throat, and renders him or her unable to act; in extreme anxiety situations, even unable to breathe. It immobilizes us and makes us unable to move off square one. Early 20th century preacher Vance Havner once made the observation that “Worry is like a rocking chair. It will give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.”
Many psychologists and other mental health care professionals have built their practices on their clients’ worry and anxiety which have stopped them dead in their tracks. Worrying has the effect of dulling our senses. It discolors our perception of reality, and makes us incapable of acting. And worry in the long term can send us into a cycle of self-blame and self-pity. Along with an emotional risk, worry and anxiety pose a very real spiritual threat. For we who seek to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of our lives, worry can become like a brick wall which stalls or halts our journey ahead in faith.
In Jesus’ teaching, anxiety and faith are set directly in opposition. In this morning’s passage, Jesus makes the point exceedingly clear. He knew that, not only He, but His disciples as well, would come upon troubled and difficult times. In verse 11, note what Jesus does not say “If they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities…,” but “When they bring you…” And trouble it would be for the disciples. Authorities and tribunals in the local synagogues had the power to inflict painful and often deadly scourging for minor religious offenses. Soon, admitting to being a follower of Jesus would be as good as a death sentence. If any would have good reason to be anxious about their lives, it would be His disciples. So Jesus seizes the opportunity to offer a les- son on worrying. “Do not worry,” He urges. Why? Life is more than the anxiety-producing matters of the world. Food, clothing, right words to speak – they will all be provided. Jesus echoes the words of the Psalmist who wrote, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.”
You see, Jesus had a plan for His disciples, and that plan did not include being stuck on square one in a mire of worry and anxiety. Jesus had great expectations for His disciples. They were to be about the business of seeking first things of the Kingdom. They were to move forward in faith. Jesus began the process of removing the brick wall of worry and anxiety saying that “these things,” these very legitimate concerns, should not stall or halt the journey of faith. The concerns will be taken care of; the needs of the day provided for; even pray like this: “Give us this day, our daily bread.” And who knew better than Jesus Himself what their needs would be? And who knows better than Jesus what our needs are, and will be.
I would not be surprised to find that many of us have come to this place this morning with our minds anxious and filled with worry. They may be worries about our finances. They may be career concerns. We may have some fears about the state of our physical or mental health. We may be worried about the state of some of our most important relationships. We may have worries and anxieties about our own or others’ very salvation. Nor would I be surprised to find that some of us here find ourselves virtually immobilized by our fear of tomorrow; paralyzed by our worrying minds; choked and strangled by our anxieties. Maybe we’ve been like this for years, or our entire lives. Have you ever heard someone say, or say yourself, “I can’t help it. I’m just a worry wart.”
I want to be very clear on this point. Worrying does not cause God to love us any less. There are many legitimate causes of anxiety over which we have no control. There may be chemical or hormonal imbalances at the root of our anxiety. Environmental factors, life history, character traits such as perfectionism, or self-esteem issues, or the affliction we once discussed called instantitis – all can send us into a tailspin which we feel helpless to pull out of. There are anxiety issues which may require professional intervention, medical or psychological. I believe in a God so big that God understands all this. Nevertheless, whatever their source, these matters of obsessive worry and anxiety have a direct and profound bearing on our spiritual lives. They place a roadblock in the way of our movement toward spiritual growth and wholeness. Spiritually-speaking, they can keep us from moving off square one.
God does speak a word to us, just as He did to the disciples in the person of Jesus: Do not be anxious; and implied in that: Get free! Sure, life has dealt, and is going to deal us, our share of problems and concerns; maybe more than we feel we can handle. We often carry baggage which is heavy enough to bring us to our knees. But worrying is no solution. It’s a hindrance. Anxiety is a quicksand that no person journeying in faith can afford to get mired in. I’m always reminded of that hit song of many years ago by pop-reggae artist Bobby McFarren. He sang, “Everybody’s gonna have trouble. When you worry, you make it double. So don’t worry. Be happy.” Pollyannish as it may sound, this isn’t such bad advice.
This morning, try casting your burdens on the Lord. God wants us to do that. Did not Jesus once say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Is this Jesus way of saying, “Don’t worry. Be happy”? Jesus comes as the great physician, not only to heal our bodies and our spirits, but also to begin the process of healing our worrying minds. And it’s surprising how much physical and spiritual healing can come along with that. Accept His offer of healing this morning. Depend on Christ to help you move out from under the clouds of worry and anxiety into the clear light of faith and trust. Give it up to the Lord. He intends you and I – just as He intended His first band of disciples – to seek first the Kingdom, then to move off square one.
Lord, who of us doesn’t struggle with worry and anxiety from time-to-time? For some of us, it has become a way of life; an unhealthy one – emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Help us, we humbly pray, to cast our burdens upon You, trusting in Your care and provision. Begin even this day the process of healing our worrying minds, and bringing us to a place of peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Advocate and our Provider. Amen.