Why We Worry

March 13, 2016
by Rev. Melanie Homan

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“Why We Worry”
Rev. Melanie Homan

Matthew 5:25-34

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[j] or about your body, what you will wear. 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 your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?[k] 28 And why do you worry 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 clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God[l] and his[m] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

I’ve shared with some of you that I’ve taken up the habit of listening to podcasts on my way to and from work each day. After months of complaining about my commute, I decided to do something about it. What I did was I posted a question on Facebook and asked people to share their favorite podcasts. I then put all of them on my phone to listen to while I’m driving. And, I stand before you today to say that my life has been transformed! That might seem like an exaggeration, but it isn’t. It’s amazing what the impact of changing one little thing in our lives can really have!

I now don’t mind my drive at all…. I REALLY DON’T! I’ve been learning all of these amazing things that I never knew about before. It’s great! It’s like going back to school and having a whole world of ideas open up before your eyes. I’ve discovered that I’m hooked on history, whether it’s learning more about the slave wars or the bawdy house riots… or even the process used to make crayons. There is so much out there to learn! I’ve also done some “work-related” podcasts, such as a refresher on what led up to the Reformation and I’m learning about early Christian mystics. All of this while driving to and from church!

One of my favorite podcasts is called Invisibilia. Invisibilia is the Latin word for “all the invisible things”, and it’s a show about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions. Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller are the hosts of the show, and they interview people around various topics. One of the episodes is called “Fearless”, where they explore “what would happen if you could disappear fear.”[1]

They start by interviewing Roger Hart, an environmental psychologist. Hart studied children in a small town in Vermont back in the 1970’s. He studied all 86 children in this small town for two and a half years, for the purpose of learning more about what children do when they are alone and are without adult supervision.

He followed the kids around and asked them to show him all of the places they went. – He asked them “Show me the dangerous places you go, the scary places, the places you aren’t supposed to go.” Then, he mapped out all of the places the kids went and discovered that they had a huge amount of freedom. They could basically go anywhere in town, whether their parents knew where they were at or not. The kids had all of this freedom because their parents weren’t worried about them. There was no talk of abduction or stranger danger because the parents weren’t motivated by these fears.

When I heard the first part of this story, my personal experience resonated with what he shared. I grew up in the ‘70s, in a small town in southern Minnesota. My sister and I road our bikes anywhere and everywhere in town, and the only rule was we needed to be home before dark. We spent hours at one of the local parks.  I can picture it in my mind – playground, railroad tracks, swamp. And, where do you think we played? Not the playground, of course! The railroad tracks and swamp were far more fun. I think about that and how different things are today. I personally can’t imagine giving our kids the kind of freedom I had growing up.

Back to the episode of “Fearless” on Roger Hart – he returns to the exact same town in Vermont to run the same experiments he ran 40 years ago. Except, now he was documenting the children of the children he had studied originally. And, he discovers that “the huge “circle of freedom” on the maps had now grown tiny.” There was no longer a free range of roaming for the kids, and the parents were pretty clear, “I need to know where you are at, at all times.” Sound familiar?

If you look at the statistics for this particular town, the town is no more dangerous now than it was before. It had the same crime statistics today as 40 years ago, which raised the question, “Why had the invisible leash between parent and child tightened so much?”

The answer he came up with was – FEAR.

Broadly, it used to be that parents didn’t worry about their kids when they were roaming around town. Now they do. Or, at least a good number do. Spiegel and Miller say that, “Crime is at its lowest level nationally since the 1950’s, but everywhere you look, fear of the world outside our door narrows the circle of our lives.” Why?

Their explanation is that evolution has set our fear threshold at a high level – for good reason. It naturally helps us to survive. We hear our house creak in the middle of the night, and we jump up to make sure no one is in our house…. then we go back to sleep. The jumping up when we hear the creaking noise means, in scientific terms, that we have a lot of “false positives”. But, they keep us safe because we are ready to react when there really is a concern. “The problem is that modern life is constantly triggering our fear in all kinds of ways that our natural world didn’t.”

Our modern world is different from the natural world of old. For example, today we are constantly bombarded with news of one awful thing after another. Through social media, we see horror inflicted on other people more or less constantly. On the other hand, we’ve been reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books out loud to our kids, and the Ingalls family got so excited when they received a newspaper – which seemed to happen only once every few months.   They weren’t exposed to other peoples’ experiences the way we are today. “Because of our wiring, we are not set up to ignore the tragedies we see, so it distorts our experience of the world. And, it activates our fear when we don’t need it to.”

The challenge we have is that this ancient chemical reaction that allows us to survive as a species is now functioning in overdrive, and we are instinctively responding with fear.

I’m interested in this because fear is such a driving force today. But, there’s another driving force that exists – hope. Both fear and hope can propel us forward, but in different directions. I like the direction hope propels us far more than that of fear!

Here is what’s interesting about our scripture this morning. Jesus talks about fear and about worry because his disciples – they were worrying. And, the early church, the first people reading Matthew’s gospel, they were worrying, too. They weren’t living in the modern world where we have access to lots of worrisome things every minute of the day – AND THEY WERE STILL WORRIED! They worried so much that Jesus has to address it with them.

“The disciples of faith, and the early followers of Jesus, were hesitant and needed reassurance.”[2] They were worried, probably wondering what in the world they had done – leaving behind their jobs and their families, following after this teacher who was getting in trouble with the Romans. They had a lot to be worried about! They were worried and wondering – “What will we eat?”, “What will we drink?”, “What will we wear?” These are natural things to be worried about, especially in their situation! So, Jesus tries to reassure them… “It’s going to be ok. Look at the birds of the air. Look at the lilies of the field. God cares for them… See how much more God cares for you!” Jesus did not want them driven by fear. He wanted them to follow in hope.

Jesus’ teaching still holds true today, even more so given the amount of fear-inducing messages we hear each day.

There’s an important distinction to make here. Just because we see that God cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field does not mean that all birds and all lilies have it easy, or that WE will have it easy. “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be easy and perfect!” is NOT the message.

Jesus is not being unrealistically optimistic or looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. A sparrow sometimes falls to the ground. We know that. Trusting in God’s providential care does not equal having an easy life. The disciples were told quite clearly that they would face persecution for their beliefs.

So, when we hear Jesus say, “Do not worry about today,” it is not a promise that we will have a safe and easy life.   What it does mean is that God will care for us no matter what happens. Jesus was trying to set the disciples – AND US – on the path of hope instead of fear.

Jesus ends his teaching on worry by saying, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” He recognizes that there are challenges each and every day and God will see us through whatever our day brings. That’s our hope. Whatever comes, God will care for us in it.

If I asked you to come up with a list of all of the things that you worry about, it probably wouldn’t take long to fill a page. We are inclined towards worry. What if I’m sick during Holy Week? What if Dylan never learns the letters of the alphabet? Did I unplug the curling iron when I left the house this morning? How have things gotten so out of control in politics? Why did I eat that whole box of thin mints last night? How do kids survive junior high and high school? So. Many. Things.

If I asked you to come up with a list of all of the things you are hopeful about, it might take a little longer because our brains are wired to worry. Hope takes some practice. But, we’d come up with it. Rylee was the “engineer of the week” at her school. She built a car out of canning jar lids, paper towel cylinders, and cardboard and, as is every things she creates, it was covered in rainbows. She needed it to move from one end of the table to the other… and it DID! The sun was shining yesterday, we saw our neighbors at the park (because everyone is coming out of winter hibernation), and people were genuinely happy to see each other. There are frogs and mice in the theater production of “Once Upon a Mattress” that, by their very existence, make you smile as they leap and scurry about. I experience people every day who give of themselves and care for others. Their motivation isn’t personal gain. Their motivation is love. Every day. That list of things that gets us moving along a pathway of hope – it gets easier and easier to come up with when we stop giving so much attention to all of our potential worries.

Don’t ignore the future. Rather, “Address each day’s problems as they come, confident that your life is in the hands of a loving God, who holds the whole world and will ultimately bring it to a worthy conclusion.”[3] To step into life, we choose hope over fear.

May it be so.

[1] Illustration taken from http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia

[2] The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew, Abingdon Press, 1995, page 214.

[3] The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew, Abingdon Press, 1995, page 214.