Rev. Silvia Purdie is a Presbyterian minister and counsellor, and is an administrator for NZCIS.
Bible Reading: Mark 4: 35-41
If you have, like me, been a Christian, and a church-goer, for most of your life, then I guarantee that you will have heard this story of Jesus calming the storm many times. All three synoptic gospels include it, which means that it comes up in our Lectionary every year, so you may well have heard a sermon on this every year of your life.
Just as well it is a fabulous story, and lots can be said about it.
You know the story … we are in a boat out on Lake Gallilee in the middle of the night after a long day with Jesus and the crowds, and the 12 disciples. The fishing boat probably was not quite built for 13 people, and Gallilee that night had one of its sudden storms, and so suddenly they were in real trouble. They were already tired after the crowds pressing in on them. In Mark’s gospel, just that very morning the crowds had been so big, and the lake so calm, that Jesus stood in the boat a little way off shore and in the stillness of the morning his voice carried sweet and clear to everyone.
But now is dark, and dangerous. They are in fear for their lives as the wind whips the boat and the waves wash in. And Jesus is having a nap, quite oblivious to the chaos and panic going on around him. They wake him up, now getting angry with him, their fear showing as anger. And Jesus stands and takes command. He commands the wind and the waves, Be Still! Peace, Shalom. And even more suddenly than it began, the storm stops, a last whoosh, a final flick of a wave, and whew the lake is a shimmer of ripples.
Then Jesus looks at them, and asks them Why were you afraid? Have you still no faith? How do you hear these questions? Is Jesus telling them off? Is he angry with them? or disappointed in them? Was this a test that they failed?
Mark does not say. What he does record, the main thing the disciples remembered afterwards, was the question that concludes the story … Who is this man?! Who is Jesus, that even the winds and the waves obey him?
If you have heard sermons about this story before you may have heard various answers to that question. Who is Jesus? He is Lord, Lord of creation. Jesus is Lord of faith, and maybe we should try harder to be less afraid and to have more faith. Jesus is Lord of all our journeys, in every moment. Jesus is Lord of peace.
This morning I want to focus on Jesus as Lord of anxiety.
I want you to leave today with a better understanding of what anxiety is, And I want to give you some practical tools for yourself and for other people in overcoming anxiety.
Like the disciples in the boat many many people – in fact, I would dare to say most people in the world today – are struggling with fear and anxiety. The world is a scary place, more so now than it was a couple of years ago. Pandemic, conspiracy theories, disasters and global warming swirl around every person on the planet and batter in with fear and anxiety.
I would like to start by inviting you to let yourself feel anxiety, and we are going to learn three vitally important tools to dealing with anxiety. Is this OK? If this feels too much for you you can just relax and watch, but I hope this is a safe place for you to give this a go.
Right. well, I invite you to think of something stressful. Maybe you are worried for someone you care about. Maybe you heard something on the news which upset you. Maybe there is something at home, with your property or finances or health that you are worrying about.
Let that anxiety rise in your mind and body. There is the tension. Notice how it catches under your chest, tightens your breath, your shoulders, your gut. Feel your pulse rate go up with the worry of it all. Feel how anxiety closes you in on yourself, and you start to feel alone even here with all these friends around you.
Thank you, you’re doing really well.
Now to come back out of it. The first thing is to breathe. Anxiety locks down your breath, so first breathe out, all the way out, and then breathe in, slowly, a bit more, a bit more … and then all the way out. Let’s do that 3 times – whoosh breathe out more than you normally do, then in, in, in, more than you normally do, then out. and again. Now, this last time, see if you can breathe in quite slowly. Feel the air coming in to every corner of your lungs. We don’t normally do that.
So that is the first anxiety-busting strategy. Deep breathing.
The second is even easier. It is to move.
Where are you feeling tense? In your arms? wriggle and stretch your fingers. In your shoulders? Lift them up and curl them back. In your neck? gently turn your head. Start with little movements, then if you dare make them bigger movements, without bashing anyone. Move the muscles on your face, your toes, knees.
It is very difficult to feel anxious when you are breathing and moving. This is the freedom of the Lord, right there. And in your own time, go for a walk, or join an exercise class, or dance. God made our bodies to move, and God knows that our minds need our bodies to move or we get stuck, in more ways than one!
One more tool, so you can relax, and sit more tall and relaxed now than you were before.
Anxiety traps our mind in the future. Worry is what is coming, what might be. That starts to feel more real than the here and now. God will be there in the future but God meets us in the here and now. As Paul puts in to the Corinthians,
“See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
Jesus is in the boat, here and now. So an important tool for overcoming anxiety is to drag yourself back into the present. How? God gives us our senses for that, so go through each of your senses. Let’s start with looking. Notice the details of what is right in front of you, a colour, a shape.
Then listen. what can you hear? Then feel the floor beneath your feet, the chair, your clothes. Then smell … and taste. Go through all 5 senses.
So, how did those 3 simple things change the anxiety?
The practices of breathing, moving and noticing do not deal with your fears but they do push back the fear so that you can actually start to deal with the situation. The problem with anxiety is that it makes us less intelligent. You know about the ‘fight flight’ response to stress. These days they call it Fight Flight or Freeze. Under stress we get angry, we get jittery and want to escape, or we sieze up and go blank. Or all 3 at once which is really confusing and not at all helpful!
Breathing more deeply, moving our bodies, and bringing ourselves into noticing the details of the present moment, these release things like wisdom and grace and competent decision making, which are all very helpful indeed.
But how do we stop anxiety keeping on rising up like that storm at sea and sucking us under? More strategies are needed.
The first one is: Name your fears. Anxiety keeps us going around and around in circles and often our brains focus on trivial details which get really big in our heads. When you are talking to someone who is stressing about stuff ask them, ‘so I wonder, can you tell me, what is your biggest fear here?’
When you were getting anxious a minute ago, if you had to say, what might be the root fear under your worry?
It’s like the disciples in the boat – they say to Jesus “don’t you care that we are going to die!” – their root fear was? drowning. Fair enough. I would say that was a Real Fear. With our anxiety it helps to separate out the real fears, things which genuinely would be bad and could happen, from our false fears. False fears are things that are actually quite small or trivial or unlikely but they trigger a storm of worry anyway.
So an important step in overcoming anxiety is to name your fears. What are you actually afraid of? Be honest with yourself and with God. Dig deeper. And this will tell you whether the anxiety is something real that you really do have to do something about, or whether the anxiety is a ‘storm in a teacup’.
Because the strategy for a Real Fear is very different from a False Fear. A Real Fear is telling you important information. I am worried that I don’t have enough money in my cheque account to pay the mortgage tomorrow – leads to, ‘right, I’d better look at my internet banking and transfer money over’. Yes I’m anxious, and rightly so. Let’s work on that.
The big anxieties of our time, like pandemic and climate change, are real fears that need our full attention and creative problem solving. The way to get less anxious is to take action. Do something about it.
For me, that means a commitment to support churches and social service agencies to take action on climate change and environmental sustainability. In faith terms, being prompted by our fears into taking action is a way to work out God’s call on our lives. God stirs us to mission and to service.
The strategy for False fears is quite different. Don’t feed them.
The biggest and most destructive False Fear is fear of fear itself. This is what causes panic attacks. If you have ever had a panic attack yourself or witnessed someone in one it is a very scary thing indeed. A panic attack is fear of fear of fear of fear, building up and up until you cannot breathe and you think you are going to die.
Anxiety is a most unpleasant sensation. The strategy for not escalating it is to let yourself be anxious. It’s OK to feel afraid. I can handle it. To go back to Corinthians again, Paul shares his capacity to experience very unpleasant things and to come through them. He describes “great endurance and afflictions”, including no doubt massive anxiety, but he came through with love and kindness and “weapons of righteousness” in both hands.
When you feel anxiety rising, like the sudden storm on the lake, breathe, move and notice the details around you. These will stop it spinning out of control. But don’t be afraid of anxiety. Don’t be afraid of fear.
Don’t feed false fears. Jesus stands in your boat with you. Jesus is there in your mind with you. And Jesus stands and rebukes the wind and the waves and declares – Peace! Be still! When worries spin around inside your thinking, remember Jesus declaring peace. Feel that sensation of the stillness on the lake. Breathe in that sweet peace. Hand your troubles to Jesus, for Jesus is Lord of all.
Let’s do our three tools again, and this time be fully aware of Jesus there with you as you do them.
Breathe out, all the way out, and breathe in, in in. Fill your body and soul and mind with the Holy Spirit, the breath of God.
And move your body gently, relax your muscles, easy out the tensions, and feel the energy of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the power of God, flow through you more freely.
And now, look around you and listen, and feel and touch and smell and taste, and expect that in everything you see and hear and experience God is with you, God is speaking to you, God is revealing himself in every way in every moment, in this moment, right now!
Let the future take care of itself, for Jesus Christ is Lord.
I pray Lord, that you will break the power of anxiey and fear over us,
and that through us you will break the power of anxiety over others.
Who is this man, that even the winds and the waves obey him? This is Jesus Christ our Lord, and we are not afraid.