February 04, 2024
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
St. Luke’s UMC
February 4, 2024
A Little Help Here…
Psalm 139: 7-12
We come to the close of our series today, A Little Help Here. I have heard from many people sharing how this series has spoken to them with things they are dealing with right now: grief, loneliness, facing unwanted changes in life, fear, health concerns. Some have revealed very painful experiences they carry.
When I read these letters and emails I often stop and pray for people, because I realize you never know what burdens people carry. We can appear just fine on the outside, and usually do because we feel that is how we need to appear, but inwardly very different things can be going on. And sometimes, when we don’t have the energy to pretend, we just stay away, and try to deal with matters on our own. But the truth is we all need help. And the gift of the church, at least in its original intention, is to be a safe place where we can acknowledge and receive help.
Today we conclude by looking at an issue that is affecting the survival of a rapidly growing percentage of our society: anxiety. In 1947 W.H. Auden published one of his long poems that won a Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Anxiety. It described the emptiness and uncertainty people experience in modern society, mainly focusing on people in big cities who can feel lost and without dependable support.
Leonard Bernstein put The Age of Anxiety to music in his Symphony No. 2. He goes back and forth between soft, gentle tones like this…(play 4:09-4:20) to louder, more dissonant sounds like this (16:40-17:00)
I don’t recommend listening to Symphony No. 2 when you are trying to go to sleep at night. The music captures the message of the poem in which anxiety is described as going between rhythms of life being mildly pleasant to suddenly things crashing beyond your control.
Now this poem and music were written 8o years ago when anxiety was not as widely recognized as it is today. Now, anxiety is the most common mental health challenge in the US affecting roughly 20% of the population, a statistic that roughly 1/3 of youth between 13-18 years old. While most anxieties are treatable more than 60% of people with anxiety do not seek help. Indiana ranks 17th in the country for people with anxiety symptoms. (https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics)
How big a deal is this? Rollo May was a clinical psychologist. When I took pastoral care in seminary we used many of Rollo May’s books. He was one of the first psychologists to write extensively on the topic of anxiety. He differentiated anxiety from normal fears. God put healthy fear in us to give instinctive reaction. May described it this way, say you step out into a street and suddenly hear a car horn. A car is about to run over you, you’re scared to death. All your protective instincts take over and you jump out of the way. That’s good fear.
But then the moment passes. The day goes on, but you continue to live in that moment. You have this lingering fear like your life is being threatened. Like the horn won’t stop, even though you’re not in danger. Your body internally is still acting like youre in the street facing the car. The adrenaline keeps rushing. The organs and muscles keep tensing.
This is anxiety. That continuation of fear and threat takes a toll on your mind, your body, your energy. It’s like it controls everything about you. Clearly this is a matter in which a growing number of people might say, even if to themselves, “Could Use a little help here.”
So what is the help we can offer? Let’s start with the Bible. What help does scripture offer for anxiety? At first glance, not much. Ecclesiastes says, “Banish anxiety from your mind.” (Ecclesiastes 11:10) Well that takes care of it, huh?
Philippians says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) Should I just play the Berstein music again?
And then, the most famous reference to anxiety in the Bible, 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety on Him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7
The Bible’s advice for anxiety seems too simplistic, but let’s think about that last statement for just a moment. Cast all your anxiety on God. Casting is an action we often relate to fishing. We use a rod to cast a fishing line. The only problem with that analogy is that we still hold the line. We will reel back in. We never get rid of anxiety. That perhaps is a good analogy to what anxiety feels like.
But they didn’t use fishing rods in the Bible. In fact, this analogy is about fishing at all. It has to do with loading a camel. You take everything you are carrying with you on a trip and load it onto the camel. You cast it. You lay your burden in one who is strong enough to carry it. The focus isn’t on your action, casting your anxiety. The focus is the one who can carry it.
When you read the rest of these verses you see this emphasis. “The God of every grace…will himself restore, establish, strengthen, settle you.” (1 Peter 5:11) All of those words emphasize what God will do. William Barclay in his commentary points out that each word has significant meaning:
Restore: means to supply that which is missing.
Establish: means to make solid as granite.
Strengthen: means to fill with strength.
Settle: to lay the foundation.
In other words, God is dependable, a sure source of support.
This is the big idea communicated in Psalm 139. It is a psalm of praise. A psalm by King David who is marveling at omniscience—God’s all-knowing power. Before a word is on his tongue God already knows what he is thinking. But then David turns his thoughts in another direction, to God’s omnipresence, the fact that there is no place he can go that God is not there. “Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” he asks. This truth is not just a spatial one, not just practical one. It is an emotional truth, a spiritual truth. Wherever we find ourselves, in whatever state, in whatever condition, God is there.
David continues: “If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and night wraps itself around me,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (v11-12) That’s not just talking about God’s physical presence anymore. David is saying, even in places of darkness, when my soul is dark, you are there, God.
Why would this be a helpful thought when dealing with anxiety?
Kylee Larson is preaching this sermon at Midtown today. Kylee, is our director of social media and has served in ministry in other congregations. She’s been a part of St. Luke’s for a number of years now. And she struggles with anxiety. When we talked about this message Kylee described her anxiety this way…(I draw on board)
As David said in Psalm 139, if I go into the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in sheol, you are there. If I settle at the farthest limits of the sea, you are there…”
And, even “If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and night wraps itself around me,” even the darkness is not dark to you…”
Think about that last statement for a moment. Notice that David is not saying that his faith eliminates darkness. Because he believes God is always there, then God just removes darkness from his life. When he prays God automatically takes away his fears and worry. No, what he says is God meets him there. Even if it is not supernaturally removed, God meets him in those places and gives him the strength to get through.
This is a help that truly helps. This is the help the church is called to give. Helping people feel understood, that their darkness is real. Its not as simple as saying, “pray it away.” But also, to help people feel supported; to know they are not alone, that God meets them in those places.
This is where the support of a good counselor is important. Sometimes getting the right medication is critical so that people know they don’t have to live in debilitating anxiety.
Tavis Bannon, our youth director, has given lots of attention to teen mental health. He and a team of trained and certified mental health volunteers offer a Teen Responders workshop that provides knowledge, skills, and resources that help youth and families both care for their own mental health but also respond to needs of peers. They focus on three areas: BOUNDARIES, COPING STRATEGIES, AND RECOGNIZING AND RESPONDING WELL TO CRISIS MOMENTS. Participants are given the opportunity to build their own mental health first aid kits. And there is also an adult potion to help parents and guardians. The next Teen Responders Workshop will be March 10 from 1-4:30 at Luke’s Lodge. And you can register at…slide with website and logo.
But let’s go back to King David for a moment. How did David come about the knowledge that God is everywhere, not just physically but emotionally? That God is in the darkness too? Because he struggled with anxiety. The great and mighty king of Israel wrestled with anxiety. He faced threats that took a toll on him. King Saul wanted to kill him and hunted him like a dog. Armies pursued him. His own son tried to kill him.
But David discovered something, that while anxiety was a reality for him, it brought him a marvelous discovery, God met him in those places. One time when everything was going wrong, when even the people who supported David turned against him and it felt like he had no one to turn to, like he was falling between the cracks, and the darkness and anxiety was swallowing him up, there is simple statement, “But David found strength in the Lord his God.” (1 Samuel 30:6)
Wouldn’t you like to know what that looked like? How did David strengthen himself in God? Actually, I believe we can get an idea…(intro Kylee)