I am a worrywart!
As I continue to examine significant words in scripture, this week’s word is, worry.
Years ago I was struck by an exhibit at the Smithsonian. It was a large cross with words painted on it. The plaque said the cross came from a Tennessee roadside in 1966. The words said, “Let Go, Let God.”
It was a nice sentiment, but inside I was crying “How do you do that?”
When I was young, furtively reading Mad magazine – it was not on mom’s approved list – I would gaze at Alfred E. Neuamn’s tag line, “What, me worry?” and think, “How can you not?”
Classic example: a few weeks ago, as we prepared a Grace Café meal, Sue and Pam looked at me with great disappointment when they pulled out the five pound block of cheese that needed grating. “You didn’t buy shredded cheese?” I told them ever since I read about sawdust in packaged grated cheese, I just couldn’t. Looking at their faces, I started worrying about carpal tunnel syndrome.
That’s the thing about worry, there may be a kernel of reality in it, but for the most part, the things that keep us up at night, are mostly beyond our control. Yet still, we worry as though we could solve the problem, simply by not sleeping.
What keeps you up at night? The economy? Health? Healthcare? Divided politics? Ebola?
A 2014 Gallup poll noted that Americans worry … a lot! And most of the issues we worry about, the poll noted, are beyond our control. And that compounds the issue, because the stress caused by worrying over those external issues, creates long-term health issues. Now that is worrisome!
Much of our worry is about what we risk. Yet often that worry is about perceived dangers while we overlook the real concerns in front of our face. Consider these:
Some years ago we agonized over avian flu, which has killed 525 people since the 1990’s worldwide, and less than five in the US. Yet we have to be cajoled into getting vaccinated for the common flu, which contributes to the deaths of 36,000 Americans every year. (Available today in the fellowship hall)
White-knuckle fliers routinely choose to drive rather than fly when traveling long distances, heedless that a few hundred people die in US commercial airline crashes in a year compared with 44,000 motor vehicle deaths.
Remember when we wrung our hands over mad cow disease, that might have been, but wasn’t, in our hamburger? Yet we hardly worry about the cholesterol that contributes to the heart disease that annually kills 700,000 of us.
We worry over a bag of spinach for fear of the E. coli bacteria, but move on filling our carts with fat-sodden French fries and salt-crusted nachos.
We put filters on our faucets, install air ionizers in our homes and lather ourselves in antibacterial soap. At the same time, 20 percent of all adults smoke, nearly 20 percent of drivers and more than 30 percent of backseat passengers don’t wear seat belts, two-thirds of us are over weight, and I won’t even mention texting and talking while driving!
So what to do about our worry. Perhaps an answer is seen in my brother’s journey with asthma. When he was small Kelly underwent a number of test to determine what triggered his breathing issues. In one series a nurse pricked his arm in eighteen different places, each a different allergen. Then she said, “Don’t scratch!” Even at 10, my brother was a bit of a card, and he couldn’t help but blurt, “why is it called a scratch test?” I suspect, if done now, his language might be a bit more colorful.
The reality is, however, that testing for allergies is not a pointless exercise in cruel and unusual punishment, even if it feels like it. Kelly’s doctor was not satisfied with treating his allergy symptoms, he wanted to get to the root cause of his reactions. And the solution is not just avoiding the allergens that he reacted to. The cure is actually exposing oneself to those allergens in small doses.
The point is this; the cure for fear of failure is not success; its failure. The cure for fear of rejection is not acceptance; its rejection. We have to be exposed to small quantities of whatever we’re afraid of, of whatever worries us. In doing so, we grasp the few things we can control and change and that’s how we build an immunity to worry and nurture the ability to really “Let Go, and Let God.”
Paul had great affection for the church at Philippi, westernmost of the churches he founded. When he writes to them he is in prison and filled with worries over what might happen to him. He is also worried for the Philippians. They too are facing opposition and hardship. Paul’s major concern for the church is to bring them together so they can overcome the threat of internal disharmony that would weaken them in facing outside challenges.
In his magnificent closing benediction he urges them not to worry about anything. He does not want them not to be victimized by the problems within and without. Paul is confident that joy and gentleness, their witness to the world, will liberate them from worry. His affirmations, “The Lord is near,” and “the peace of God…will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” is cause for rejoicing, not worrying. The peace which the church can know, the sense that all is well, does not have its source within –there is dissension there – nor does it come from outside, -- there is opposition there. Their peace comes from God who will stand, literally, “sentry watch” over your hearts and minds.
Since God has chosen to call the weak, the poor, the outcasts, all full of worry, Jesus invites those who “are weary and carrying heavy burdens.” To come and find rest. To set worry aside. Yet what Jesus offers is not a hammock, but a yoke. In Judaism, the yoke was the symbol of obedience to the law and wisdom of God. Jesus’ yoke is a willingness to follow the commandments of the kingdom of heaven and serve others with humility and mercy. Jesus’ yoke is easy and light, not because there is little to do or the way is safely paved. On the contrary, there is a cross to be carried and the world is full of wolves. Jesus’ yoke is easy and light because it is the way of God, and it satisfies the soul profoundly.
“Let go, and Let God” then means that the antidote to our ever present worries is to focus on our calling. To set our sights on being compassionate and merciful to others. To serving God, for in doing so, we will take up that which we can manage, and lay aside that which we need not manage.
In a wonderful children’s book “What to do when you worry too much, A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety” psychologist Dawn Huebner begins by asking: “Did you know worries are like tomatoes? No, you can’t eat them, but you can make them grow by paying attention to them.”
We can’t all get scratch tests for worry and it can be intimidating to dip our toe in the water of our anxieties. So as we struggle to shift from worry to following Jesus here are seven things you can use to stop paying attention to worry:
Change your bedtime: staying up late at night can feed your inner worrier. Get some rest.
2)Smell a grapefruit: Oncology nurses who encounter lots of work-related stress and fatigue reported improvements in tension and worry after using essential oils, a favorite was grapefruit.
3) Breathe slowly: Deep breathes or yoga breathing, has long been known to reduce anxiety and tension.
4) Another fan favorite: Eat Chocolate. Certainly increasing sweets has its problems, but eating chocolate can lower your worries. Researchers found that people who ate one and a half ounces of dark chocolate a day for two weeks, had reduced levels of stress hormones.
5) Engage in forest therapy: The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, which means forest bath. 20 minutes of walking in a forest setting, significantly lowers anxiety as opposed to walking 20 minutes in an urban setting.
6) Write down your worries: It seems counterintuitive, as though writing down worries would fuel more. However researchers studied students prone to test anxiety. They were asked to write about their fears before an exam. Those who journaled improved their test scores by a grade point!
7) Take up knitting: Keeping your hands busy can keep your mind off of worries. In a study out of Cambridge, volunteers watched graphic footage of car wrecks. Participants who had been asked to type a repetitive pattern while viewing the film suffered fewer flashbacks. Verbal distractions, such as counting outload, had no benefits.
Keeping hands and minds busy interferes with storing and encoding visual images. That is why worry beads and knitting calm us down.
Corrie Ten Boom once said “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It empties today of its strength.” Jesus and Paul guide us in proper handling of worries so that indeed we have strength for the journey today. And for that we may rejoice in the Lord!