May 26, 2013
The kids and I enjoy watching the T.V. show Monk. We love a good mystery, and we love the quirky detective who is afraid of so many things, including dirt and milk. There’s a line in the theme song that goes, “People say I’m crazy to worry all the time, but if you paid attention you’d be worried too. / You better pay attention or this world we love so much might just kill you.”
Now, Monk suffers from obsessive/compulsive disorder and anxiety disorder and who knows what else. The implication is that a mentally healthy person will not worry so much; will not be so afraid of the world. But I think there is a sanity to anxiety. It is true that any number of people and things that surround us just might kill you.
When my dad got sick back in February, I wasn’t that worried–lots of people get fevers, especially during flu season. When he was admitted to the hospital, I was more concerned. When they moved him to intermediate care, I went to Wichita to be with him. When they moved him to intensive care, I called Mom in a panic from his hospital room. But even as the anxiety grew, I fought against the deepest fears. I imagined viral or bacterial infections that could be treated. One possibility they mentioned was multiple myloma which I didn’t even want to think about less than a year after Lola’s death. I wrestled with the fear until the diagnosis came–untreatable leukemia/lymphoma–at which point I collapsed into the fear, was swallowed up by it.
And I find, nearly three months later, I’m still trying to crawl back out of the fear. If a fever can mean leukemia and imminent death, surely a tick bite–with a red bump and swollen lymph nodes!–means some deadly disease. Surely a headache is a brain tumor. A queasy stomach is some intestinal catastrophe.
It’s difficult for me to trust in the healthy functioning of the human body right now.
“People say I’m crazy to worry all the time, but if you paid attention you’d be worried too. / You better pay attention or this world we love so much just might kill you.”
That’s one song. A song many of us can probably relate to. A song that affirms fear.
Our Psalm this morning is a different song. It is a song against fear. A song in three stanzas; and the chorus says: “Yahweh of heavenly forces is with us; / the God of Jacob is still our refuge.”
Verse one is about overcoming fear in the face of natural disaster. The psalmist sings of the earth changing, the mountains shaking, the waters roaring and foaming.
Just as I am having a hard time trusting the human body, the writer of Psalm 46 apparently had a hard time trusting in the stability and safety of the natural world. The writer had probably experienced trembling mountains and roaring waters–terrifying phenomena. In the part of the world where the Psalms were written, there were two rainy seasons each year, often causing flood waters to roar and foam.
I imagine it is difficult for the residents of Moore Oklahoma–and Joplin, Missouri, and New Orleans, and anyplace that has experienced devastation from a flood, earthquake, tornado, hurricane–I imagine it is difficult for people to trust the earth and the sky and the ocean to stay firmly in place. Panic rises with a strong gust of wind, fear covers as dark clouds creep across the sky.
The natural world can be a frightening place. And when you add people to the mix, it can be even more frightening. That’s verse 2 of our our psalm-song: “countries roar, governments crumble.”
A couple of Sundays ago I shared the story of Sam Slaven, a veteran of the Iraq war. Sam was able to overcome his deep prejudice against Middle-Eastern people by becoming part of the Muslim student association at his university. I think it is important to note that the root of his prejudice was not hatred, but fear. He experienced violence at the hands of certain Iraqi people. He watched friends killed by Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqis where he was stationed were, at first, people he trusted who then became people he feared. And the fear would not let him go even when he came home from the war.
The threat of violence is, of course, not just on the battlefield. After Columbine and Nickle Mines and Newtown, we are all aware that a troubled person with a gun could walk into a school. In some communities, young people being shot is not a once-in-a-lifetime dramatic event; it’s the way things go in the neighborhood. There is a high school on the south side of Chicago where–in one year–29 current and recent students were shot; 8 died.
We can’t trust our bodies and we can’t trust the natural world and, it seems, we can’t trust our fellow human beings either.
In the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook, we heard that “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” And some people believe it. I recently heard of a church that allows conceal carry during worship because, “What if someone showed up and tried to shoot us during church?”. A couple of weeks ago NPR had a story about the shortage of certain types of guns and ammunition in this country right now because so many people have rushed out to buy weapons.
According to the psalmist, however, God’s plan is not to give all the good guys more weapons. God’s plan is to break the bow and shatter the spear and burn the shields with fire. (That’s verse 3.)
“Yahweh of heavenly forces is with us; / the God of Jacob is still our refuge.”
When we can’t trust our bodies, our world, our neighbors, we can still trust in God. That is what the psalmist declares. That is the chorus of the song, repeated in the midst of very real threats; repeated in the midst of fear–even justified fear: “Yahweh of heavenly forces is with us; / the God of Jacob is still our refuge.”
According to the psalmist, God’s presence with us now, our knowledge of God’s presence with God’s people–Jacob and others–in the past–this means that we do not need to be afraid.
The psalm opens with these words of comfort: “God is our refuge and strength. A very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear.”
“Therefore, we will not fear.”
Easier said than done. Right?
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown says that about 80 % of the thousands of parents she’s interviewed have had the experience of being overwhelmed by love for their children only to immediately begin imagining horrible things that might happen to those same precious children–at which point the joy turns to fear.
If you are in the 20% who haven’t had this experience, consider yourself blessed. If you are not a parent, you may have had this same type of experience with a spouse or sibling or niece or nephew. Or maybe not this exact experience, but a time when you begin to fill with joy and then suddenly squash it down. Brown calls this “foreboding joy.” She says that we “practice being devastated” because “we don’t want to be blindsided by hurt.”
The preacher Fred Craddock talks about a related concept that he terms “putting cushions on the floor.” Most of us try not to get too excited about things–in case they don’t turn out as well as we imagine. “Well, I got an interview, but I probably won’t get the job.” “Yes, the publisher is interested, but they might not like the first chapter I just sent in.” “Sure, these tests were negative, but the cancer could always come back.” Cushions on the floor. So that if disappointment comes it won’t hurt too much.
Except all of our cushions and all of our practiced devastation doesn’t really make things better when disappointment or tragedy strike. They just prevent us from fully experiencing joy in the moment.
So how do we get to that fearless place the psalmist proclaims?
“God is our refuge and strength. A very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear.”
How do we do it?
Well, back to the third verse of our song. (The tenth verse of our psalm.): “Be still, and know that I am God!”
You’ve probably heard this verse before. It’s a lovely verse: “Be still and know that I am God.” In our loud, fast-paced society, the thought of being still sounds nice. Be still.
Except this verse doesn’t really mean what we generally think it means. The translation is bad. The Hebrew word used here is raphah, which means “let drop, let go, abandon.”
Lay down your weapons.
And this makes sense in the context of the psalm. “God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; / God
breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; / God burns the shields with fire. / ‘Lay down your weapons, and know that I am God!'”
As Mennonites, pacifists, most of us support the notion of disarmament. We know that the solution to gun violence is not to give more people more guns. That our nation’s problems will not be solved by shifting larger and larger percentages of our national budget to military spending.
While some people deal with their fear of violence by taking up arms, we understand God’s call to lay down our weapons. We understand that guns and bombs do not really make us more safe.
We may not keep loaded handguns in our silverware drawer. (I really hope you don’t keep a loaded handgun in your silverware drawer.) But it seems that our anxiety–our foreboding joy, our cushions on the floor–these are also false forms of security that we cling to in the midst of our fear. These are metaphorical arms we take up; and like real weapons, these defenses are more likely to harm us–and those we love–than to protect us.
When joy comes, we imagine all the ways the joy could be ruined–and in the process, of course, we ruin the joy ourselves. We practice being disappointed in the hope that when actual disappointment comes it won’t be quite so bad–which just means that we feel disappointed much more often than we actually are disappointed.
I think God’s words in the psalm apply not just to our physical defenses, but our emotional defenses as well: “Let drop, let go, abandon, and know that I am God.”
Your foreboding joy. Your cushions on the floor. Let them drop. Let them go. Abandon them. And acknowledge that, in the end, our faithful and loving God is the One with true power.
Yes, if we pay attention it’s easy to be worried. About our health, about tornadoes and floods, about the violence in our world. This world we love so much just might kill us. The Monk theme song is true.
But the psalmist’s song is also true–is more deeply true: “Yahweh of heavenly forces is with us; / the God of Jacob is still our refuge.”
Thanks be to God.