Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Running Scared

On Sunday, August 12, I preached my very first sermon. Here is what I said. Or pretty close.

          What are you afraid of? What makes you shake in your shoes? Think for a minute of what scares you. Or maybe what used to scare you. When you were a kid, were you afraid of the dark? Maybe it was the boogie man in the closet, or the monster under the bed. Or the monster at the end of the book!
          What are you afraid of now? Perhaps you have a scary health problem. Maybe you're afraid that you or a family member will lose a job. Are there financial worries? If you're a parent, are you afraid something could happen to your kids?
          I know! We're all afraid of the coming zombie apocalypse! If the Mayans were right, as of December 21, we're doomed!
          I'll tell you a couple things that make me rattle in my Reeboks. That way, you'll know that I'm preaching as much to myself as I am to all of you.
          I keep having a recurring dream that we somehow lose our house. I never know how that has happened, but we have to live somewhere else. Dream me is devastated. When I wake up, it takes me some time to calm down from the panic. Now, when I'm awake the rest of the time, I'm not aware of being afraid of losing our house, but I do know some people who are afraid of just that.
          Another thing I used to be afraid of (and still kind of am) was not having an answer when somebody asked a question. I always felt it was somehow my responsibility to have an answer ready for anyone who asked. Even the Bible said I was supposed to! I Peter 3:15 - "Always be ready with an answer." And who was I to argue with God? If I couldn't provide the information the other person wanted, I felt I was somehow letting that person down. I have since learned (and am still learning) that I don't have to be everything to everybody. Yes, I do what I can within the abilities that God has given me. But I have discovered the freedom of those three little words: "I don't know," and their cousins "I'm not sure" and "Look it up."
          Now, if you want to make our choir quiver, just walk up to one of them and say "a cappella." I can hear the groans now. "Oh, yuccapella!" Or, "Acapulco? Yeah, I wish I were in Acapulco. Then I wouldn't have to do this." There is something about singing without piano accompaniment that scares some of them positively stiff. Never mind that they do it every week and they do it just fine. But it's still a scary thing for them.
          But no matter what has us running scared, we have a choice. We can either listen to those inner voices telling us we should be afraid of everything, or we can approach these things more reasonably. We can be running scared or we can be walking with God.

          Granted, there are some things we should be afraid of. We should be afraid of putting a hand on a hot stove. We should lock our houses and our car doors. We should be aware of what's going on around us.
          I discovered that ever since I started washing my hands like a germophobe, I hardly ever get sick now. For somebody who works at a college full of students who are always either getting sick, are sick, or recovering from being sick, that's doing pretty well. Now where's the hand sanitizer?
          Those are all examples of reasonable fear. A better name for this might be "caution." It is what keeps us safe in what can be a dangerous world. But, unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of people who are so fearful, they are scared stupid. They're running scared.
          If I had a dime for every e-mail I got telling me all about the next thing I should be afraid of (Thanks Bob! Thanks Lee!), I would be a millionaire several times over. Here's an example of one of those, and if you've seen it, please don't say anything:
          There is a chemical called "dihydrogen monoxide." I have received several e-mails saying it should be banned. And for plenty of good reasons, since:

          1. it can cause excessive sweating and vomiting
          2. it is a major component in acid rain
          3. it can cause severe burns in its gaseous state
          4. accidental inhalation can kill you
          5. it contributes to erosion
          6. it decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes
          7. it has been found in tumors of terminal cancer patients

          How many of you would you support a ban of this chemical? You don't have to raise your hand. One student asked 50 people if they supported a ban of this chemical, dihydrogen monoxide.

          Forty-three (43) said yes it should be banned.
          six (6) were undecided.
          and only one (1) knew that the chemical was water. 

          It's stuff like this that just adds to the culture of stupidity in our country. We're all running scared. Alarmists who practice junk science spread fear about everything from water to food (which is the biggest choking hazard we will ever face. Did you know?!)
          And global warming! Climate change! Don't even get me started on that one. When all is said and done (and it never seems to be all said and done!), all the screaming I hear strikes me as being no more than fleas arguing over the temperature of the dog.
          Do you know that we take a bigger chance just going to bed at night than we will doing almost anything else during the day? It's true! I looked it up. According to the Centers for Disease Control, falling out of bed accounts for 1.8 million emergency room visits per year and over 400,000 hospital admissions. It actually kills 450 people every year. That's about 38 people per month. And that's just in the United States. I don't know what the statistics are worldwide. But come on. Who isn't going to bed tonight because of that?
          Here's another one. More people die of suicide than by homicide. So you have a better chance of killing yourself than you do of being killed by someone. That's just great. Now I have to be afraid even of myself.
          Even so, we had the terrible case of the killings in that movie theater in Colorado a few weeks ago. My heart goes out to those people. But how do we react to something like that? I had some friends who actually told me they were afraid to go into a theater after that. Really? Now, I looked it up. According to the National Association of Theater Owners, there are almost 40,000 movie screens in the United States. So if you happened to be in a theatre on that particular day a few weeks ago (which is already a small chance), you had a 1 in 40,000 chance of being in the "wrong movie theater." More people die falling out of bed every month than died in that theatre. And on top of that, you had to be there at a very specific time, which lowers the odds even more.
          You have a better chance of being struck by lightning! I looked it up. The National Weather Service says that there's a 1 in 10,000 chance of being struck by lightning sometime in your lifetime. Compare that to the 1 in 40,000 chance we were just talking about. If that's not enough to convince you that going to the movies is absolutely safe, consider car accidents. Thousands of people die every day in car wrecks. Does this mean that you will stop driving your car? Of course not!
          So now we're not only running scared, it had better be away from the theatre. But no matter what has us running scared, we have a choice. We can either listen to the alarmists, or we can approach these things more reasonably. We can be running scared or we can be walking with God.

          What about things that fall between the two extremes of "reasonable fears" and "running scared"? I'll buy that a helmet is probably a good thing for a bike rider to have. But padding everything else? What's up with that? Children simply cannot go around in bubble wrap all their lives. We do them a disservice by protecting them from all risk, from all failure, from all problems. When they're protected from risk, they cannot learn how to handle risk. When they're protected from failure, they cannot learn how to handle failure. When they're protected from problems, they cannot learn how to solve problems.
          Some of us are even proud of our fears. It somehow makes us "good people" if we take so many precautions that it paralyzes us or our loved ones. We become martyrs to our own failure.

          So let's bring it back home a little bit. We've talked a little about what we're afraid of personally and a little about what fears we may share with our society. What about us as a congregation? What has AHPC members wobbling in their worship service? We might have good reason to be afraid. We're in a financially precarious situation, and we're in time of transition between pastors. That six-letter word "change" can be a scary thing. Some people hate it so much they think of "change" as a four-letter word. And maybe it is. Ch-a-n-ge. But we have a choice. We can be running scared or we can be walking with God.
          I see several reasons for hope. 
          Sure, we have our fair share of alarmists too. They have said for years, "We're within two months of closing our doors!" But one reason for hope is that we're not within months of closing our doors. Even with the spending freeze we've had to implement this summer, we still have some decent savings and assets like the manse that stand between us and financial collapse.
          Another reason for hope is our people. I admit that as little as five months ago, I was among those who were concerned about the viability of our church. What was once a vibrant, 500-member church is now down to something like 53 members. How discouraging! But then I attended a meeting of the finance committee and session with the Committee on Ministries from Presbytery, and I discovered that the people sitting around that table were all faithful people who were not going to let this church go down without a fight. How encouraging!
          Another reason for hope is our connection to Presbytery. We have access to a great bunch of resources in the Presbytery that other denominations simply don't have to the degree that we do. They won't let us go down without a fight either. I've seen other churches dwindle to as few as three members before Presbytery goes ahead and allows them to close.
          The last and best reason for hope is God. If it is the will of God that we close our doors, then it will happen, no matter what we do. But from the evidence I've seen, I believe that if God were going to shut us down, he'd have done it by now. With God on our side, who can stand against us?
          The thing is, fear is a feeling. Feelings can fool us. Noah surely felt fear in the ark. That didn't change the fact that he was never in any danger, and therefore really had nothing to fear. Feelings don't equal facts. We can't let our feelings - our emotions - make our decisions for us. It's a little like the tail wagging the dog. If we let our feelings rule over us, they will affect our actions, which will affect our thoughts, which will stand in the way of God. I challenge every one of you to make a point to do it the other way around. Let God rule your thoughts, which will affect your actions, which will affect your feelings. Then you will have no reason to feel fear.

          Let's see what the Bible has to say about fear.

1) So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

2) The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? (Psalm 118:6)

3) If God be for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

4) I have not given you a spirit of fear. Fear prevents forward progress. (Isaiah 41:13)

5) For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15)

6) Another translation of that same verse reads: "Fear always tells you what you’re not, what you don’t have, what you can’t do, and what you never will be." (Romans 8:15)

7) For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (II Timothy 1:7)

          Our hymns today say the same things. "Leaning on the everlasting arms, safe and secure from all alarms." All alarms! Safe and secure! "When sorrows like sea billows roll, it is well with my soul." Amid sorrows, it is well! "Oh, what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer." Needless pain! Carry to God in prayer!

          Let's say we're successful in doing this. Let's say we have put fear in its proper place and put God in there instead. Let's take a look at what can happen when we do this:
          We can found a country like America. How many immigrants strapped on their courage and made the long journey in a time before airplanes? Do you think they may have been afraid that their ship would capsize or they'd get sick and die? Probably, and some of them did die. But if they had not taken the chance; if they'd let their fear keep them home, they would have never founded what is now the greatest country in the world.
          We stand to lose that because we're becoming a nation of scaredy-cats and Chicken Littles who all think the sky is falling, and then act surprised when it doesn't.
          Let's see, what else? We can invent the light bulb. When Thomas Edison was asked if he was discouraged by all his failures, he said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Unfortunately, we now have too many people who stop trying after only one failed attempt.
          Another thing you can do if you put fear in its proper place is walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. Nik Wallenda did just that back in June over the objections of many fearful folks. He was the calmest person there, and he was the one on the tightrope! I don't know if you saw any of it, but they had him wired for sound so he could talk to the TV commentators and people in his control booth while he was up there. There was one place near the middle where there was more water and more winds than at either of the ends. When he approached that area, the TV commentators started talking about how dangerous that area was, and how scary a time it would be. "Will he make it through?" was the nail-biting question. But he made it through, and successfully crossed to the other side without incident. When the TV commentators asked him how he did it, especially in that dangerous middle section, he said, "Well, when you guys started talking about how dangerous it was going to be, I understand you have to create drama for your audience, but I just had to block that out. If I listened to that and gave in to those negative thoughts, it would have gotten into my head and prevented me from being able to do it. So I ignored it and did what I knew I could do."
          Now, I'm not suggesting we all run out and trot across the nearest tightrope. Heck, if I tried to do something like that, I would be dead before I took four steps. But Nik Wallenda didn't let the fear of others affect him. He trained long and hard to do what he did without fear. His next tightrope walk is going to be across the Grand Canyon.
          But the main thing Nik Wallenda counted on was God. He is a dedicated Christian, and he prayed all the way across. You could hear him as he went: "Thank you God, thank you Jesus, thank you Lord . . ."
          Let's look at II Timothy 1:7 again: "For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of 1) power, and of 2) love, and of 3) a sound mind." When we give in to the spirit of fear, we deprive ourselves of 1) the power of God; we deprive ourselves of the 2) love of God; we deprive ourselves of 3) a sound mind that is the gift of God.

          So what do we do? How can we conquer the all-pervasive fears, those devil's tools, that keep us captive? Fortunately, there are ways we can treat it exactly the same as we would any other of the devil's tools.
          First, avoid all sources of negative, fearful thoughts. Just like Nik Wallenda had to block out those negative statements by the TV commentators, so we have to block out the negativity being sold to us by society. At our house, we stopped taking the newspaper years ago, and we don't watch the daily TV news on a regular basis any more. Yet we are still well informed. We choose to get our information from other sources so we can avoid the "if-it-bleeds-it-leads" mentality of today's media. That may be a solution that can work for you as well.
          But there may be others. Maybe there are particularly negative people you can see a little less of, or maybe avoid altogether. Maybe you change what you read or what kind of entertainment you engage in. However you do it, just stay away from the sources of fear-mongering negativity. It may seem difficult to do, but it is well worth the peace of mind.
          Second, you need to replace those negative, fear-laden thoughts that you're no longer filling your mind with. Replace those old thoughts with bold, courageous thoughts. If we must avoid the fear that society sells us, we must also avoid another culprit, which is us. Whatever you keep telling yourself all day is what you will believe - what you will become. Instead of filling your mind with things of fear, things of the devil, fill your mind with things of God. When you fill your mind with the things of God, you'll find your life is filled with the things of God. Like Nik Wallenda, we can block out the negativity we tell ourselves and concentrate instead on what we know we can do.
          Paul tells us exactly this in Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honest, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."
          Third, change your assumptions. Assume you can do something instead of assuming you can't. Don't put a "t" at the end of "can." T (tea) is something you drink. Instead of dwelling on what you are afraid of, dwell instead on the goal you want to reach, the thing you want to do. I asked at the beginning what you were afraid of. Now I'll ask what that fear is preventing you from doing. What is it you want to do?
          Paul (again!) tells us exactly this in Philippians 3:10-14. "My aim is to know him . . . and to be like him." It also says, "I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind [read "the things I am afraid of"] and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." One person said it like this: You can't hit what you don't aim for.
          It all comes down to God and his love. "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:13). "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear" (I John 4:17).

          In the children's sermon, you heard that the monster at the end of the book was just Grover. "I, Grover, am the monster at the end of the book."
          When we turn the pages of our lives, we find that the monster at the end is us. Our worst enemy is us. When we listen to Satan's words of fear, and give in to their power, we deny the power of God to change things. So 1) eliminate the sources of fear in your life. 2) Replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. 3) Change your assumptions from "can't" to "can." Trust in the God through whom we can do all things. I again challenge you to let God rule your thoughts, which will affect your actions, which will affect your feelings. Then you will have nothing to fear.
          It is our choice. We can be running scared or we can be walking with God. I pray that you will walk with God - without fear.