Opening Words – “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry #483 (responsive)
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Responsive Reading : Matthew 6:25-29
25 Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
27 And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?
28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin;
29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Reading – From Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Pete Barton knew that his sister Lucy was coming to Chicago for her paperback book tour; he followed her online. Only in the last few months had he had the house wired for Wi-Fi and he had bought himself a small laptop computer, and what he most liked watching was what Lucy was up to. He felt a sense of awe that she was who she was: She had left this tiny house, this small town, the poverty they had endured – she’d left it all , and moved to New York, and she was, in his eyes, famous. . ..
Seventeen years it had been since he had seen her; she had not been back since their father died.
When his telephone rang on Sunday night, Lucy said to him, Petie I’m coming to Chicago, and then I’m going to rent a car on that Saturday and drive to Amgash to see you.” He was astonished. Great! He said, And as soon as they hung up he felt fear.
He had two weeks. During that time his fear increased, and when he spoke to her on Sunday in between, and he said, Really glad you’re coming to see me, he thought she’d have an excuse and say it wouldn’t work out. Instead, she said, Oh, me, too.
So he set about cleaning the house, He bought some cleaning stuff and put it in a pail of hot water, watching the suds, then he got down on his hands and knees and scrubbed the floor; the grime there amazed him. He scrubbed the kitchen counters, and was amazed by their filth as well. He took down the curtains that hung in front of the blinds and washed them in the old washing machine. In his mind they were-blue-grey curtains, but it turned out they were off-white. . .
But when he stepped through the door – he saw things the way she would see them, and he thought: She will die; this place will depress her so much. He really didn’t know what to do. He drove to the Walmart outside of town and bought a rug. And that made a huge difference. Still, the couch was lumpy and its original yellow flowered upholstery was worn; at points it was threadbare. . He gave up, but the day before she was to arrive he went into town and got a haircut; usually he cut his own hair. Only when he was driving home did he wonder; Was he supposed to have tipped the man who cut his hair?
That night he woke at three in the morning with nightmares he could not remember. He woke again at four, and could not get back to sleep. She had said she
would be there by two in the afternoon. At one ‘clock he opened the blinds up , but even though the sky was cloudy the windows still looked streaky, and so he closed the blinds again. Then he sat on the couch and waited.
At twenty past two, Pete heard a car in the pebbly driveway. He peeked through the blind and saw a woman step from a white car. When he heard the knock on the door, he was so anxious he felt his eyesight had been affected. He had expected that sunlight would flood the house, meaning that the presence of Lucy would shine and shine. But she was shorter than he remembered and much thinner. And she wore a black jacket that seemed like something a man would wear, and black jeans and black boots, and her face looked so tired. And old! But her eyes sparkled. Petie , she said, and he said, Lucy! She held her arms out, and he gave her a tentative hug; they never hugged in their family and the gesture was not easy for him. The top of her head reached his chin. He stepped back and said, I got a haircut, moving his hand over his head. You look wonderful, Lucy said. And then, almost, he wished she hadn’t come; it would be too tiring.
Pete, oh my God, hello, She looked straight into his eyes, and he saw that it was her; he saw his sister. I cleaned up for you, he said. Well, thank you. Oh, he was nervous.
“Awfully nice to see you.”
“Lucy I need to ask you something.”
He thought he saw alarm cross her face. He said, “Was I supposed to tip the guy who cut my hair? “
Does he own the shop? If the guy owns the shop you don’t have to tip, but if he doesn’t own it , you should. Don’t worry about it, if you go back, tip him a few dollars, but don’t worry about it.
He loved her for this, for her knowledge of the world, and her knowledge of him. She didn’t seem embarrassed that he had asked such a question. Oh, he really was happy. Maybe that was why he didn’t hear a car in the driveway. He and Lucy jumped. He saw her fear; she sat up straight and her face became stern; he felt the fear himself. He pulled back the blind, It’s Vicky (their sister, who talks and talks until) . . .
Lucy begs her to stop. – . . . Then she began to shake her hands as if she had just washed them and there was no towel. I can’t stand it, she said, Oh God help me I can’t stand it. And then Pete understood that she could not stand the house, or being in Amgash, that she had become frightened the way he had been frightened to get his hair cut, only Lucy was so much more frightened than that. She kept shaking her hands – I don’t know what to do. I’m having a panic attack.
Anxiety. Everybody’s got it. So what’s the fuss? Sure we have earthquakes and wildfires and hurricanes, and then there are mass shootings. Are we going to have to worry about someone shooting us at Fenway Park? Stay away from large crowds we hear, and be safe. Everybody’s got it. But that is an easy way to dismiss it. There are too many guns around. True. And global warming is giving us larger and more frequent storms. True. Those things do make us more anxious, but can’t we mobilize and work for gun control and climate change? Still there it is. A powerful force welling up inside of us. Anxiety is the mental health challenge of our times. And when the parishioner says I have a social phobia and have a difficult time meeting new people, is our response, “oh come on, anybody can be a greeter. It’s easy. Just hand out the programs.” We don’t feel the sweat forming on the back of someone’s neck, or the stomach begin to gurgle. We aren’t very sympathetic. What do you mean that kid doesn’t want to go to school? He runs away. He refuses to participate. Make him go. You got to teach them to be tough. We had to do it. But there are youth that just cannot go. It is too much, and they fall apart. It is real. Is it because they are bullied by a classmate or a teacher? Is there too much pressure to succeed, be the best, or are they overly scheduled with classes and sports and music? Or is it just in the DNA?
Studies show us that it is genetic. Life is unpredictable and we are vulnerable. Perhaps it began with the Neanderthal looking over his shoulder to see if the Saber toothed tiger was going to attack. The prospect of being eaten will make you anxious. Every day was an anxiety producing experience then. Would you survive? Where would you get water, food, shelter, the basic necessities for life? I have thought about this in the context of these recent natural disasters. What kind of anxiety do they produce, and how do you cope? The closest thing I could think of to such a life threatening event in my life was my encounter with a rogue wave off the coast of Maine. Many of you remember my story of being hit by this gigantic wave, and being swept out to sea. I had some serious injuries, had hypothermia and nearly drowned. I never lacked for food or shelter, and slowly I recovered from my broken bones. What I found especially enduring about the accident was not that I was forever scared of going to the beach. I still love the ocean. No, it was an event that happened the summer following the accident. I was on the waterfront with my back to the surf, and suddenly heard a wave coming in. My body had this visceral reaction of stark fear. The trauma of the initial wave hitting me all came back like post- traumatic stress. It was happening all over again. My body felt the anxiety just as those who suffered far worse traumas like the horrors of the holocaust or slavery have those anxieties forever coded in their genes, and they pass them on to future generations. We might wonder if the fear of domestic abuse of a spouse or child is forever imprinted in their blood as well as their psyches, so they are forever wondering, what is going to happen next?
So it is important to remember that this is not something we simply control like mind over matter. We don’t just get over it by being strong. Almost a year ago I was laying on a hospital gurney in the ER at Mount Auburn. I had gone there on election night because my heart was beating out of control. And this was before I learned the results of the election. The doctor came in at one point and said, “Are you feeling anxious?” That is like asking the polar bear if he likes a hot sun. Of course I was anxious as my heart rate climbed to 250 beats a minute. With horror we watched the monitor, and when they couldn’t get it under control at first, one nurse suggested we stop watching the monitor, and proceeded to turn it so I couldn’t see it. Maybe it was a little of the philosophy if you don’t see it, it’s not there. I have been anxious this entire last year wondering if we could get this heart problem solved, wondering sometimes if the times of rapid pace were normal variations, or some kind of arrhythmia. We worry, whatever afflicts us, is it happening again? The happy news for me is that my doctor pronounced everything normal after a second cardiac ablation. No more pills, he said, but then went on to suggest that I could take the one that slows the heart rate as a preventative measure. He said some patients take it as an anxious time approaches, such as when they are going to perform.
I know what that one is about. When I was a young minister I had preaching dreams all the time. They were the usual predictors of some kind of disaster such as all the service elements happening at the same time, or my favorite, tripping on a stair and being catapulted into the pulpit and knocked unconscious. Mostly I have not had these anxiety producing dreams about failure or embarrassment before a large crowd. Yet I think the three-month sabbatical and the summer produced the anxiety again. I had two such dreams recently. In one, I was going to do a child dedication at a different church. I was carrying the baby around the church, but I couldn’t find the sanctuary. Furthermore, my papers kept getting out of order, and I had too much material, much of which seemed extraneous. There’s a reality check for you. Trying to get back into the church, there was a series of little doors, and I was reminded in the dream of visiting Oz, where the guard says come back Tuesday. I finally got in. In another dream I was in my old church in Milton trying to conduct the church service, but we couldn’t figure out what the second hymn was. People kept coming out of the congregation with old orders of service that were placed in their hymnals – last week, Christmas eve, everyone but the right one. Then I ran to the corridor where the church office was supposed to be located, but I couldn’t find the right room. I found the preschool, the storage closest, my office, but never what I needed to see the original order to figure out that second hymn. I was about to give up, when I woke up. Anxiety about not having the right material or too much or too little. Anxiety about getting lost, or about places or things that are not where they are supposed to be. Fear that something will go wrong.
Is this your anxiety dream, too? Do you ever panic when you learn you have to speak in public, or fly in an airliner, or drive into the city? Judith Viorst summed it up when she wrote the poem, “Worry About.”
My pants could maybe fall down when I dive off the diving board.
My nose could maybe keep growing and never quit.
Miss Brearly could ask me to spell words like stomach and special.
(Stumick and speshul?)
I could play tag all day and always be “it.”
Jay Spievack, who’s fourteen feet tall, could want to fight me.
My mom and my dad—like Ted’s—could want a divorce.
Miss Brearly could ask me a question about Afghanistan.
Somebody maybe could make me ride a horse.
My mother could maybe decide that I needed more liver.
My dad could decide that I needed less TV.
Miss Brearly could say that I have to write script and stop printing.
(I’m better at printing.)
Chris could decide to stop being friends with me.
The world could maybe come to an end on next Tuesday.
The ceiling could maybe come crashing on my head.
I maybe could run out of things for me to worry about.
And then I’d have to do my homework instead.
Viorst’s poem reminds us that much of the anxiety we feel emanates from obsessive worry about things that have not happened, but moreover probably will not happen, plus she makes a joke of it. I think of my mother’s incessant need to check to see if the stove was off every time we left the house. It was part of her OCD, but it also virtually guaranteed that she would never leave it on. I am so incessant about checking my back pocket to see if my wallet is there, that it is very unlikely I would ever lose it, and in fact, I never have. So we could say that in these instances our anxiety prevents certain disasters, like fires or losing items, from happening. But when it dominates your thinking, or saps your energy, or prevents you from doing things you love to do, then it is truly counter- productive. I am a worrier, and so when a child has not come home, I create a scenario in my mind of a car crash, or being lost or in trouble. This may prevent me from focusing on anything, but what might go wrong. A safe return home may finally help convince me that perhaps I did teach them to be responsible drivers, and as they have reached adulthood, I have come to trust them more.
Anxiety seems to be part of my DNA. My father was terrified of heights, and so some of my strongest memories are of him clinging to the inside wall at the Statue of Liberty, or refusing to look out on the amazing waterfalls and rock formations at Yellowstone because of the altitude. My parents refused to fly, and my older brother never has either. People used to say that if they were meant to fly God would have made them a bird, but finally my parents decided to fly when not doing so meant they could not see me. Love overcame their anxiety. While flying made me nervous at first, I have mostly gotten over it, perhaps from having experienced it so many times. And indeed that is one way we overcome some of our fears, we learn to live into them, and see that, most of the time, things turn out fine. Perceived dangers, are mostly that, perceived. Sometimes a job forces us do what we are uncomfortable with. Ministers are told that we should become a non-anxious presence when there is a time for us to be with someone who is in pastoral need, so we can calmly hold a hand or reassure them that things will be alright. Martha Urban, Guy’s mother, once told me a story about how she was in the hospital to deliver a baby, and the minister came to visit. He was so uncomfortable in that setting that Martha had to minister to him, holding his hand, and telling him it was going to be okay. Maybe his next hospital call was less terrifying for him because of Martha. But he and my parents did something very important when they went outside their comfort zones and faced their fears.
How do we help bring about what D. H. Lawrence called the thaw of anxiety? In the reading from Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, we see Pete become quite anxious that his sister Lucy, who is now a famous writer, is visiting him after seventeen years. He wonders if his house and his haircut are good enough, and he worries that her visit may tire him out. There is some measure of care in this homecoming, but then their sister Vicky comes, bringing memories of their childhood which was isolated, poor, and abusive. Vicky’s talk is cruel and the memories too painful. Lucy has a panic attack and asks to be driven back to Chicago. Sometimes we must get away from the cause of the emotional trauma. This is like the teens who have school refusal that began with a trauma. We may try to make them adjust to the school environment, and then end up calling them a discipline problem, but what they need is nurturing space where they feel accepted and understood, rather than pushing them with the need to get over it or grilling them with what’s wrong. Instead we walk with them, spend time with them and don’t pressure them.
That is how resilience can develop. Lucy Barton can function fine until her sister keeps hammering at her with how bad everything was, as if it is still happening.
Kay Redfield Jamison, who has written extensively on mental illness once said,
“I think one thing is that anybody who’s had to contend with mental illness – whether it’s depression, bipolar illness or severe anxiety, whatever – actually has a fair amount of resilience in the sense that they’ve had to deal with suffering already, personal suffering.” If you think you can’t handle your anxiety, think again, and remember what you have dealt with. Whether it is surviving abuse, raising a child, completing a project, you may feel that you don’t meet some standard of excellence, or you are not good enough, but visualize all the obstacles you have overcome, and you will see what strength you have to overcome adversity. We have all met many challenges in life, and managed to overcome them. We are still here.
Scott Stossel in the book My Age of Anxiety speaks of his own struggles with anxiety. He says, “There are lots of things, including changing the kind of inner dialog, that can mitigate anxiety. And yes, there are people who have the glass half full and glass half empty, and I’m afraid the glass is going to break and I’ll cut myself on the shards.” How can we cultivate an optimistic frame of mind? I am one who tends to see the glass from the half empty or critical perspective. I think the person won’t like me, or the sermon is not good enough. Yet this points to one positive attribute of anxiety. We all need some of it to give us an edge in doing a good job. I want people to like what I do. I want affirmation. Thus being nervous about whether I have put enough effort into the sermon or the project means that my anxiety makes me work hard, put in the time, do due diligence to try to create something meaningful. I can’t control how you will respond. But I can control how much effort I put into it. So even if my tendency is to see something negatively, like I could have done better, my impetus is to do a good job. But it perhaps comes at the expense of being at peace.
How do we cultivate calm in the midst of a tendency to predict disaster; to feel nervous or apprehensive? How can we carry a measure of trust and love? We all need mentors who affirm and believe in what we are doing. One of the earliest preachers of Universalism in Maine, Thomas Barnes, had two daughters. One of them, Sally Dunn, gained a reputation as a lay preacher long before any woman was ordained. One Sunday, a fledgling minister named George Quinby had to preach his first sermon. He said “my knees knocked together with anxiety, especially when he noticed Mrs. Dunn in the congregation. She could preach as good a sermon in ten minutes as most ministers could in an hour, and she was a great critic. Terrified, before he stepped into the pulpit before this renowned preacher, he asked a colleague what to do. The friend replied that if she took out a box of snuff during the sermon and took a sniff, it meant that she liked the sermon. As he was preaching he kept his eyes upon her, and sure enough, she fished out her box of snuff, and took two of the longest pinches a woman ever took, and then cried out Amen. That sight took all the knock out of Quinby’s knees. A similar feeling came to me when I went before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. As I was answering a particularly difficult question about process theology, I looked to my right, and saw one of the most influential clergy, mouth these words across the room, “I like this guy.” My knocking knees were suddenly calm, too.
If being positive, and finding affirming role models helps with anxiety as do resilience, and facing fears, so too, does having a spiritual community, such as this one to know that there is continuity, but also support and understanding as well. Here we nurture religious values of community that provide hope for the future because we have learned from the past and grown stronger because of it. It relieves the anxiety of tomorrow because we know we have always cultivated an engagement with the world that brings energy and compassion to our relationships
I think one of the most comforting readings I have known about anxiety is the passage from Matthew that we had as a responsive reading today. There is such simplicity in these words from a man who was under constant surveillance and stress by people who truly did not like him. He said money and material success will not reap you any enduring truth. You want to rid yourself of anxiety? Take time to look at the flowers and see beauty. You want to know the true heart’s song? Listen to the song of the birds. There is no truth that you need to search and search for. It is right here in the here and now, close at hand, at peace with nature. Sometimes when we feel terrible anxiety, a rapidly beating heart, we say take a breath. Take a breath. Go for a walk. Here together may we renew the spirit, by reminding ourselves that striving is in vain, but seeing how lovely each of us is, in this moment, is all the truth we need to know.
Closing Words ― Corrie ten Boom
“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”