September 15, 2013
Sermon Series: “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.”
Sermon Title: “Don’t Worry. Re-Label.”
Preacher: Dr. David Albert Farmer
The most important thing I must say as I begin this new sermon series called “Don’t Worry. Be Happy” is that I should not be preaching this sermon series. This is to say, I should not be preaching this sermon series AS IF I have mastered the art of what I would like to project. What I SHOULD preach based on my life thus far is a series called something like “Be Happy When You Worry” or “Worry for Fun and Profit” or “Don’t Worry. Life Will Not Rob You of Opportunities to Fret” or something more like one of those.
So, why do I persist? All I can tell you is that the series kept coming into my consciousness as I studied this summer, and so here we are. I can take mild solace from something I read in a preaching textbook back in divinity school, a book called Preaching the Good News by then preaching professor at Princeton Seminary, George Sweazey, who said, and I paraphrase, if you only preach on what you have accomplished your preaching program will be meager indeed.
For these first four Sundays in the series we will be concentrating on the “don’t worry” part, and then for all the Sundays after that leading right up until the Sunday before Thanksgiving we will be concentrating on the “be happy” parts. Plan your weekends away accordingly.
Everything is not as it seems. What a revelation! That assessment applies in practically in any context. For our purposes today, that’s a good thing. When I initially perceive negativity in response to a situation about which I have limited information and it causes me worry as an initial knee jerk reaction, I may find out if I gather additional information and ponder the possibilities that it’s not as earth shattering as my worry reflex anticipated.
Psychology and counseling were interests of mine all along my academic pathway, and at some point I was introduced to a therapeutic model called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. The simplistic way it was first explained to me was that a therapist using these methods tried to help clients assess the reliability of their emotional reactions to various types of stress. For example, my professor said, if someone says, “I’m about to lose my job, and that’s the worst thing in the world,” the therapist would help the client think through truly worst case scenarios and consider whether or not a job loss would be up there with a world war or being stuck for hours on a malfunctioning elevator with Mitch McConnell or bumping into members of the Westboro Baptist Church on the way to picket a fallen soldier at her or his funeral or being Paula Deen’s life coach.
When I was a youth minister many years ago, before I gave up church lock-ins for Lent and then for good, my pastor occasionally presented a children’s, something at which he was very, very good. And, no wonder. He was the brother of actor John Cullum and had the same sense of both the comic and the dramatic as does his famous sibling. I am not gifted in that regard and fortunately for the children here know my limitations.
So, Brother Cullum’s children’s sermon for the day was on worry. Long before cell phones were imagined outside an experimental lab somewhere he had a little plastic play telephone in his hand. He made the phone ring as he paced nervously back and forth across the front of the sanctuary, but he did not answer it. Instead, he allowed the kids to hear him thinking out loud, “Who could that be? What could they want? Why am I getting a call at this time of day? Is it a bill collector? [I don’t think the children knew what that was, but their parents surely did.] Is it someone calling to say I forgot to meet her or him for an appointment that I’d scheduled? Is somebody in the church sick?” On and on he went entertaining us all while purportedly speaking just to the kids. Of course the summary message, good for children AND adults, was you can minimize some worry just by being sure you know exactly what’s going on.
Brother Cullum finally answered the phone. Wrong number.
As of June, a Gallup Poll showed the top ten issues about which Americans worry the most. Here they are: 1) our nation’s debt; 2) employment; 3) wars; 4) apathy of elected leaders toward their constituents; 5) availability and cost of healthcare; 6) the sense that our country has regressed in so many areas that we will never be able to recover; 7) the loss of civil liberties; 8) national security; 9) government at all levels abusing power; and 10) the availability and cost of education. OK. OK. I’ll tell you the next five! 11) elder care, Medicare, and Social Security; 12) immigration and border controls; 13) the decline of participation in organized religion and with that the presumed decline of morality; 14) democracy giving way to socialism; and 15) poor leadership in the highest levels of government including the presidency.
How about very personally? What do we worry about? The Kaiser Family Foundation clocked us as of this past February. Here are the top six. It worries me that they didn’t make it an even ten! 1) serious illness hitting self or someone close to us; 2) not being able to afford necessary health care; 3) being the victim of an act of gun violence; 4) losing a job; 5) not being able to pay rent or mortgage; 6) being the victim of a terrorist attack.
On the little poster I created for this sermon series, there’s a disclaimer. It says something like this: This sermon series will not attempt to advise those going through significant life crisis; any insights offered will be for those living in everydayness. Of course, there are things we almost have to worry about. Even if it can be demonstrated that worry doesn’t help one iota in resolving any challenging or threatening situation most of us can’t help giving in to some kind of worry.
I’m sure you’ve heard some statistics tossed around about how much worry can be construed as potentially worthwhile. One set of those statistics I remember suggested that 40% of what we dread most never happens, 30% of what we worry about has already happened one way or another before our worry kicks in, 22% of what we worry about we have absolutely zero control over. That leaves us with 8% of possibly worthwhile worry.
Karen and Kit and Steve know about a situation that confronted me yesterday afternoon about which I was quite worried, but had little time to engage my worry skills. I arrived at the Oliver Golf Course to perform a wedding for the office of the Clerk of the Peace. Bob Faatz, Ron Bergman, and I have all performed off site weddings for that office since it became policy for the Clerk and his deputies not to perform more than a small percentage of weddings away from the Clerk’s office.
I met with the couple several weeks ago and knew this was to be an outdoor wedding, and a golf course certainly isn’t the most unusual spot I’ve ever been asked to perform a wedding. That honor would probably go to the wedding I performed with my beloved New Orleans friend, Rabbi Ed Cohn, on the Carousel at City Park. [Ed, if you’re reading this, love you and miss you!!!]
So I arrived and got myself robed and such, and the groom found me to let me know he hadn’t changed his mind–usually a good thing–and to ask me if I had any objections to being driven in a golf cart to the green near which the ceremony would be held. I said, “No. That will be fine,” meaning, “Oh my god! Are you kidding me? Well, if it’s that far from here, I’d rather ride than walk. So fine.” I stopped short of thinking about the worst things that could happen under those circumstances because I was distracted by thinking about how entertained my sons would be with another story to add to my repository of wedding ceremony lore.
Someone in charge told me to wait outside so I did as I was told. Awaiting my chariot, the best man came up to me and said, “That’s your cart.”
I said, “It’s a lovely cart too. Where’s my driver?”
He laughed and said, “You’re your own driver. You’re not scared are you? Anybody can drive a golf cart. Seat, steering wheel, brake, gas. Get it?”
For a minute, I was shaken up with worry. Pressing the gas doesn’t always mean a vehicle will move forward. Pressing the brake doesn’t always mean a vehicle will stop. And for my first ever try at this, I have an audience of 100 or so people including a photographer to record the spectacle if my cart didn’t glide as smoothly over the curb as they said it would.
I’m proud to tell you that I called a halt to all my worry because, truthfully, all the in charge people started speaking to me in elevated volume, “Go. Hurry. You have to walk down the aisle first.” That’s one way to get rid of the pessimism–fear of failure and fear of humiliation!
The Apostle Paul did some fretting in his day, but as he meditated and prayed about his life’s most pressing challenge or at least his second most pressing challenge, a fascinating insight came to him that gave him finally some personal peace after all those years of worry. And, by the way, the cause of his worry didn’t go away.
He called this problem his “thorn in the flesh,” and nobody knows for certain exactly what this was—though that hasn’t kept numerous interpreters including me from speculating. All kinds of possibilities have been tossed about for exactly what Paul’s thorn in the flesh might have been. One of our pastors at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church during my growing up years said it was Paul’s mother-in-law, proving that he was not a bachelor after all. Other more likely options include homosexuality and virtual blindness. I’d also toss in guilt.
There is nothing that I know of in his writings to suggest in any pointed way that he was gay other than many—not all—of the varieties of homosexual expression in his day. Though never condemning homosexuality wholesale, he was critical of homosexual prostitutes at worship sites, older men becoming too aggressive with boys as was widely practiced and praised in some segments of the Roman Empire, and perhaps with drag. Don’t let your mind wander, but some read between the lines and wonder if sexual identity was Paul’s thorn in the flesh.
Virtual blindness is a really good guess, and there is more possible evidence for this option. When Paul, whose name before his dramatic conversion experience was Saul, was knocked off his horse with a thunderous roar and a blinding flash of lightening he initially had no vision at all. And though his spirituality shifted to a positive place, his eyesight never returned fully. For someone whose ministry required a tremendous amount of correspondence, this was frustrating and painful; someone had to read letters to him, and someone had to transcribe his responses for him. He generally couldn’t send out anything written in his own handwriting, which meant a lack of the personal touch. This troubled the pastoral side of Paul.
I don’t think it can be contested that Paul was unable ever to get over the fact that prior to his decision to be a follower of Jesus he had been a jealous, zealous Jew who lived for the opportunity to find ways of getting followers of Jesus persecuted—occasionally leading to execution. The guilt of that never left him; it was with him for the rest of his life’s journey though he renounced his moral flaw.
As we heard in the reading from 2 Corinthians, he prayed about this thorn in the flesh consistently, pleading with God to take it away from him. The thorn remained. Paul worried and fretted and prayed some more, and yet whatever his trouble was it remained. Finally, in a reflective mode he sensed God saying to him, “…my strength attains its perfection in the midst of weakness” (The New New Testament translation).
That’s no good, is it? If God took it away, that would be good, but having to live with it even with some reframing of how he thought about his thorn in the flesh still left the thorn in tact. The fact that one can survive even when some problem, pain, or distraction persists is evidence of God’s supportive presence. That relabeling got Paul through.
Dr. Eda Gorbis is a psychologist who treats extreme worry—pathological anxiety, let us say. Here is a word from her on relabeling so as not to be crippled by worry:
Whereas simple, everyday awareness is almost automatic and usually quite superficial, mindful awareness is deeper and more precise and is achieved only through focused effort. It requires the conscious recognition and mental registration of the [anxiety]. You should literally make mental notes, such as, “This thought is an obsession….” You must make the effort to manage the intense biologically mediated thoughts and urges that intrude so insistently into consciousness. This means expending the necessary effort to maintain your awareness of what we call the Impartial Spectator, the observing power within us that gives each person the capacity to recognize what’s real and what’s just a symptom and to fend off the pathological urge until it begins to fade and recede.
Many of us, too many of us, lose much joy and personal peace because worry overtakes us, and it doesn’t have to be that way much of the time. Remember that I’m not suggesting you should try to force yourself not to worry about something that really does threaten you or someone you love. But short of something of such an extreme, re-labeling may help, and not by trying to give us another bumper sticker slogan to live with—rather by helping us discipline ourselves to give the possible good a chance to shine through.