All the things I’m scared of

Person's Feet in Gray Sneakers Dangling Above Waterfall

A sermon on Luke 1:5-22 for Kensington Community Church on the first Sunday of Advent. This sermon series is structured after the theme “How does a weary world rejoice?” from A Sanctified Art.

Don’t tell me not to fear

I am someone who is scared, a lot, of a lot of things.

I am scared of taking out the trash at night.

I am scared of my car making weird noises.

I am scared of checking my to do list.

I am scared of notifications in the FollowMyHealth app from my doctor’s office.

I am scared of phone calls from unknown numbers.

I am scared of phone calls from known numbers.

Sometimes I’m scared of real things that have real risks—like, there are probably a good few reasons to be afraid of the dark, if we’re honest—and sometimes, my fears are over nonsense.

I have what they call “clinical anxiety,” which really just means that somewhere along the evolutionary chain, my brain never learned to stop thinking lions were chasing me.

I never really learned how to feel safe.

And now as an adult, it feels like I fear everything.

I would sit down and tried to inventory all the silly things that make me afraid, but even just the idea of that sets off my anxiety.

And I say this playfully, but it’s totally true and can impact me in some rather deep ways.

Like, you may know some people or you may be some people who go to therapy occasionally, for like, situational concerns; I am the kind of guy who has a standing weekly appointment, because if I wasn’t constantly making progress on this stuff, I don’t think I’d be able to hold down a job.

So suffice it to say, when the scripture tells us that Zachariah was “paralyzed in fear,” I feel a sense of deep kinship with him! I know what it is like to be so afraid you can’t even move.

Zachariah, my kindred spirit

The scripture tells us that, unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense.

I assure you, if I were here this morning prepping the communion altar, lighting the incense, and someone showed up out of nowhere, my reaction would involve at least a little bit of fear.

I would be… rather spooked.

And if that person told me not to be afraid… I think that might also make me more afraid, honestly!

Why should I trust someone who tells me not to be afraid of them? That’s what a scary person would say!

And so when I hear the angel tell our guy Zach to not be afraid, I want to step in on his behalf and defend him a bit!

No, Zach! Your feelings are valid! Feel your feelings! If you’re afraid, be afraid!

And this Angel really isn’t helping things.

Without even pausing to make sure Zachariah has heard and received the “fear not” message, the angel keeps going and escalates the situation!

No, it’s not just that there was a surprise visit from an Angel, this is now apparently also a pregnancy announcement! Hope you’re done saving for retirement, Zachariah, because now you need to start a college fund at 65.

Then things escalate further, because of course.

This is like if the internal monologues of my anxiety attacks came to life. Not only is Zachariah going to be a father apparently, but he is going to be a Father to a son who follows the “style and strength” of Elijah—the like “big deal” prophet, the one who never died.

“So now I’m supposed to like, tiger parent this kid into excellence despite my aging body? Great.”

Punishment for doubting?

Zachariah, understandably in my view, says “you expect me to believe this?”

“I’ve taken my OWL class; I know how menopause works; there’s no pregnancy happening.”

And the angel responds by saying “do you know who I am?” and then by punishing Zachariah for the fact that he hesitated before believing.

Or at least, that’s how I used to interpret that action by the angel, as punishment.

“Because you didn’t believe… I will take away your ability to speak.”

But what if that’s not a punishment? What if there’s a different way to look at this? What if instead of a punishment, it’s something like a prescription?

American Sign Language

A while back, a friend shared with me her experience as a mother of a child born Deaf. She told me how she spent weeks and weeks praying that God would make her daughter just start hearing.

Then she said that, some months into this, she started to feel guilty for praying God would change her daughter, for implying that there was something wrong with the child made in God’s image; for asking God to make her daughter a better fit for her desires. So, she told me, she started praying that God would change her. That God would help her to understand her daughter rather than to make her daughter understand her.

That God would teach her how to be a good parent to her Deaf daughter.

She told me about how she learned to use sign language for her daughter, and how over time, this sign language changed something about her deeply.

She developed a sense of kinship with the Deaf community that went beyond translating sentences. She noticed herself using idioms from American Sign Language in even her spoken and written English. She noticed the syntax of her thoughts started to order themselves around the syntax of ASL.

She had started out praying for God to change her daughter, and instead, God led her on a journey that gave her a new way of thinking and communicating.

And now when I read this scripture, I think I see it less as a story about Zachariah losing his speech, and more about Zachariah learning sign language.

Zachariah was given not a punishment of being mute, but a gift of a new way to communicate and, eventually, I suspect, to think. He was given the chance to restructure the syntax of his mind around a new, unspoken language.

And this makes sense to me not just as a way to more charitably interpret the angel’s behavior, not just as a way to make the Bible story feel more “UCC” in its affirmation of the doubting.

No, this makes sense to me because if we are to believe scripture, Zachariah somehow finds a way to go on living and working and being a dad, and at least for me, learning new ways of thinking and communicating is the only way I’m able to function despite my own fears.

You see, my weekly therapy appointments aren’t just time to kiki, to chismeando, to gossip. In therapy, I analyze my understanding of the world and I practice new ways of thinking.

Don’t ask me to fool myself

There was a time when my strategy for anxiety management, or at least the one I attempted, was to explain away my fears, to tell myself that the voice of anxiety in my head was the voice of a liar, making up stories that just could never be.

But the problem with that is… I wasn’t going to be able to fool myself like that.

My anxiety around opening the “FollowMyHealth” app from my Doctor’s office comes from an existential fear that one of the regular tests I do to make sure my HIV is under control will come back with bad news. That is a real possibility, not an imaginary fear. It’s very much possible that one day I will learn my condition is getting worse, not better.

The anxiety that comes up around looking at my to do list is often driven by a fear that I won’t be able to get it all done, that I’ll have say “hey, my time boundaries mean I can’t get to that this week”… that I’ll have to let people down. And like, news flash: I will let people down! I often have to leave things incomplete; I often have to cope with the fact that I can’t always be what people wish I could be.

But all that to say: I would not be able to get over my fears by explaining convincing myself they were imaginary.

No, I needed brand new syntaxes, brand new ways of thinking about things, if I was going to find a way to be a productive member of society.

I had to accept that my anxiety and my weariness weren’t going anywhere. That I wasn’t going to win a fight to kick them out of my brain, that I wasn’t going to successfully evict them.

Because if I had to wait until my fears were gone to rejoice, if I had to shut out my anxiety before I could do the things I was afraid of, if I had to evict weariness from my spirit before I could open my to do list… I’d be waiting my whole life, paralyzed, balled up on my couch.

If I wanted to go on with my life, I would have to find a way to go on while the weariness was still there.

So I, with the help of God and Dr. ■■, did that.

I found, right next to my true and real fears, an additional truth: that I would be okay, regardless of whether my fears were true or not.

That I could face my fears not by shouting them down and ignoring them, but by saying to them “you can’t stop me.”

I found a new way of thinking that saw my anxiety and the joy I desired as roommates, as partners, as siblings.

I learned to be a person who did things while he was still scared of them.

I learned to be weary and rejoice at the same time; to be anxious and hopeful at the same time, to see hope on the horizon and fear in my rear view mirror at the same time.

Because I had to. The weariness wasn’t going to go away.

How does a weary world rejoice

Our theme for Advent this year is inspired by the song, O Holy Night, where there’s this line that goes “the thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices!”

We are looking, each week, for ways that a weary world can rejoice.

When Zachariah is weary, he is made mute by God’s angel. Some might even say as punishment for doubting.

But I think this silence is only punishment if we see signed languages as a downgrade from spoken ones; if we see his being mute as a bad thing.

What if instead, Zachariah is being given the gift of learning to think and communicate in new ways?

What if God, through this angel is responding to Zachariah’s question of “how am I to believe this?” not by saying “how dare you doubt! Shut up, sit still, and listen as I prove to you how little you know about me!”

What if instead God is saying “you can believe new things are coming, because I am doing a new thing right now! Look, you can communicate with your hands! Look you can reorder your thoughts now!”

“Even while you doubt, I am at work. And I will keep working, keep being the God of hope, the God who makes all things new, even while you doubt. Your hope and fear don’t have to cancel each other out.”

And more importantly, what if that’s God’s invitation to us in our weariness right now?

What if that’s God’s recipe for us to rejoice: What if we are being called to rejoice and sigh in the same breath? To not let our weariness cancel out our joy? What if we are being called not to lay our weariness and our fear and our anxiety behind, but to find the ways that God is already here, already accompanying us, already doing a new thing with our weary selves?

What if God is not invalidating the weariness of our world, but validating an additional truth: that the God we worship, the God whose Advent we await, gives us hope in which we can rejoice while we are still weary.