Dude, you’re stressing me out

Rev. Chris Jimmerson
June 4, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756
austinuu.org

We are in challenging times, encountering much change within UUism and our church. We look at how stress can show up in our lives and steps to manage it.


Reading:
By Erika A. Hewitt

As we enter into worship, put away the pressures of the world
that ask us to perform, to take up masks, to put on brave fronts.

Silence the voices that ask you to be perfect.

This is a community of compassion and welcoming.
You do not have to do anything to earn the love contained within these walls.

You do not have to be braver, smarter, stronger, better
than you are in this moment to belong here, with us.

You only have to bring the gift of your body,
no matter how able;
your seeking mind, no matter how busy;
your animal heart, no matter how broken.

Bring all that you are, and all that you love, to this hour together.
Let us worship together.

Reading:
David O Rankin

There must be a time when we cease speaking
to be fully present with ourselves.

There must be a time when we exclude clamor
by listening to nothing whatsoever.

There must be a time when we forgo our plans
as if we had no plans at all.

There must be a time when we abandon conceits
and tap into a deeper wisdom.

There must be a time when we stop striving
and find the peace within.

Sermon

Many years ago, my spouse, Wayne, and I were both working with a non-profit organization that was a part of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) HIV research network. In 1994, we held our annual AmFAR meeting at a big hotel in New Port Beach, California.

After the first day of the meeting, we had a nice dinner and an opening night party and then all went off to our rooms to get some sleep. Wayne and I were in a room located on one of the upper floors of the hotel. At around 4:30 a.m., the next morning, the building started shaking violently. I anchored myself in bed holding tight to one edge of it until the shaking stopped, at which point, the building commenced swaying back and forth, something that felt most unnatural for a building to be doing. Foolishly, I got up and looked out the window. The water in the pool far below was splashing out of each side of it. It looked about half empty. Terrified, I dashed back into the center of the room.

We had just experienced the Northridge Earthquake, the epicenter of which had been less than 60 miles away.

After the swaying finally stopped, and we had calmed down a little, we finally went back to bed to try to get some fitful sleep, when suddenly, a speaker in the wall of our room blared to life and the very young sounding voice of the overnight manager came over it.

“Ladies and Gentleman, we have just experienced an earthquake.” “Dooooon’t panic.”

Then there was this clicking sound, which I am guessing is when he thought he had turned the mike off, and then we hear from further away, “So, what do we do now?”

We found out the next day, that one of the other meeting attendees had panicked, bolting from his bed wearing nothing but his underwear and out the door of his room, which slammed shut behind him. He ran across the hallway right into a mirror on the wall opposite his room, breaking the glass with his forehead. And so it was that he found himself, dressed in only his skivvies, locked out of his room with his forehead bleeding.

Now, the moral of this story is stress and anxiety can make us do really stupid stuff. They also can be bad for our health, (even when we don’t run around half naked and bust our forehead on a mirror).

The terms “stress” and “anxiety” are interrelated. They can cause very similar effects on our behavior, health and mental status. They are not exactly the same though.

Stress is normally thought of us an acute reaction to external events or situations in our lives.

Anxiety is an internal state rooted in fear that can exist with or without such external stressors.

In common everyday language though, we often say something like, “I am really stressed out” when we are actually feeling is anxiety, whether or not it is in reaction to an external stressor.

Family systems theory is a field in psychology and psychiatry that looks at how entire human systems – families, communities, churches, nations – can as a system “get stressed out”. Anxiety can fill up the whole system.

The entire system can start to do stupid stuff.

And we as members of the system can pass the anxiety around to one another, causing it to spread throughout the system like a virus.

The longer the anxiety lasts, the more chronic it becomes, the more it can hold us back and do us harm to us, as individuals and to our family, church or community.

And, my beloveds, we are living in a highly stressful, anxiety provoking time.

We face potentially devastating consequences from global climate change, and, speaking of doing stupid stuff, Trump just withdrew us from the global climate pact. Covfefe indeed.

We are witnessing terrorism. We are experiencing increased hate crimes and violence.

No matter what our political outlook, the divisiveness and polarization we are seeing at the national and state levels produces anxiety for folks of all political persuasions.

I know many folks in this church have recently gotten more involved in political activism than ever before, moved to action by fears of growing authoritarianism and harmful public policy being enacted.

It’s wonderful that so many folks are living out their highest values in the public and political arena. Yet doing so can also stress us out. It can be hard to keep up with all of the rallies, petitions, town meetings and other actions. It is scary to call up the office of a politician whom we know disagrees with us.

I’ve talked with many of you who have expressed how difficult it can be to balance all of this with the demands of life and family and just paying attention to our own needs for physical and mental wellbeing.

And this is in addition to the normal stressors of our day-to-day lives – jobs, bills, overloaded schedules and the like.

Peter Steinke is a renowned congregational consultant who applies family systems theory to churches. Listen to some things he lists as potentially being the most anxiety provoking for a religious community:

Strife or conflict at the denominational level. Check.
Large decreases or increases in attendance or membership. We have averaged about 40 more folks attending on Sundays since the election. Check.
The unexpected absence of a minister or other key leadership. Check.
Building construction or renovation. Check.
Ladies and gentlemen, doooooon’t panic.

Joking aside we are experiencing a lot of things that can make as fearful and anxious, and, as I mentioned earlier, a chronic state of anxiety can cause us harm.

As individuals, it can cause ill health effects too numerous to mention them all. Examples include things like premature heart disease, mental health problems, infertility and immune suppression. It can also impede our memory, decision-making and general ability to function effectively.

In our families and congregation, anxiety can result in getting stuck, where we avoid making the tough decisions and lose our ability to respond creatively as a group. We can lose sight of our mission. It can lead to the formation of factions and infighting. It can result in fake fights and highly emotional responses that are greatly out of proportion to whatever the stressor might be.

In one church, lots and lots of email messages were sent expressing great upset over the fact that the church secretary used the term “worship associate” rather than “lay leader” in the order of service one Sunday.

That was a fake fight to avoid the real anxiety that folks were feeling because a new minister was making larger changes to how they did worship overall.

OK, we know anxiety can have these ill effects and that we currently have all these potential sources of anxiety.

So, what do we do now?

I’m going to share some of what we can do, but first I want to offer the caveat that I an not seeing much at all in the way of anxious reactivity currently in this church. I offer the following as tools should we need them.

At the congregational level, there are several healthy ways we can handle anxiety and help keep its level lower. We have in place structures and systems, such as our covenant of healthy relations and our conflict resolution procedure. These and other resources are on our church website.

We also try to make clear what the lines of authority and accountability are. For example, our senior minister, Meg, has asked me to serve as the acting senior minister during her sabbatical so that folks will know to whom to take matters they would normally have brought to Meg.

Another thing we can do is use “I statements” when having important discussions in the church. I statements are when I clearly label my point of view as what I think, rather than expressing my world view as a fact of nature to which, of course, any reasonable person would naturally have to agree.

We can also help prevent the spread of anxiety within the church system by avoiding what’s called triangulation.

I’ll give you an example, but I must pause for the following disclaimer. “The persons and events in this triangulation example are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.”

OK, so triangulation is when Tommy is upset with Walter because Walter was supposed to give him a ride to church last Sunday. Walter completely forgot and did not pick him up. This Sunday, Tommy sees Walter getting coffee in the fellowship hall, but instead of talking directly with Walter, he goes to Suzy and says, “I’m so mad at Walter I could spit. He was supposed to give me a ride last Sunday and he never showed up. Could you go tell him how rude that was and make him apologize to me?

Translation: “Hi Suzy, have some of my anxiety.”

Suzy can avoid being triangulated by refusing to take on the anxiety and saying something like, “Wow, that sounds like you really need to talk with Walter. Want me to walk over there with you?”

What Dr. Steinke and other family systems folks will tell you though is that the number one thing we can all do to most greatly lower the anxiety in our family, community or church is to work on lowering our own anxiety as individuals.

We do that through a process called, “self-differentiation”. Self-differentiation is when we get to know ourselves and our own patterns deeply. We define what our own highest values and beliefs are.

And, we identify activities – practices that are calming and centering for us and get disciplined about engaging in such practices. By doing all of this, we can become a more non-anxious presence when we interact with others.

Now being a non-anxious presence doesn’t mean that we will never feel anxiety. It just means that we have identified our unconscious responses to anxiety – our patterns and emotional reactions, so we can make these patterns conscious to ourselves when they are happening. This then allows us to make calmer, healthier choices if needed.

Many of our patterns grow out of the fight, flight or freeze responses embedded in the more ancient parts of our brain. And none of these are necessarily bad. Any of them might have been quite useful depending upon what predator or other threat our ancestors might have encountered. It is when we are not aware of them that they can be the wrong choice for the situation.

So if you’re one of those folks that has been engaging in the constant political resistance I was discussing earlier and your are feeling stressed out and in need of taking flight from it all for a little while. If you’re feeling the urge to escape by, as our choir sang earlier, wanting to rock and roll all night and party everyday (metaphorically speaking, of course), that’s OK, at least for a while! Just make it your conscious choice and know it may not be the healthiest thing for you as a way of life.

One of the things that our unconscious fight, flight and freeze responses can do is disguise anxiety as a different emotion. Identifying what that is for you can be very helpful.

How does anxiety show up for you? For some of us, it may be the classic fear response – a tightness in the chest, elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, an urge for flight. For others, it may show up as anger – an urge to fight. Yet others as a numbness, an inability to feel, which can be incapacitating – like being stuck or frozen.

Family systems theory says that we also translate these unconscious patterns into ways of interacting with each other within our family or church system that once again are largely outside of our awareness.

The three major styles include, 1. conflict. We fight – we argue, blame and criticize others. 2. distance, where we emotionally take flight – we distance ourselves from others and avoid uncomfortable yet important topics. And finally, fusion, a freeze response in which people get stuck in patterns where some people in a system over-function, taking on most of the responsibilities, decisions and activities required to maintain the system, while other folks under-function, abdicating these responsibilities.

By knowing ourselves and our patterns, we can interrupt anxiety and our unconscious responses to it.

Finally, I want to close by inviting you in these stressful times, to inoculate yourself against anxiety and give yourself a way to lower it when it does come, by finding one or more spiritual practices that work for you.

Now, the very term “spiritual practice” can cause anxiety sometimes because we think it necessarily has to be religious or onerous like – something like extended meditation every day or lengthy journaling.

It doesn’t have to be though. It can be anything from walks in nature to photography to knitting to gardening to cooking to singing, dancing, making music to writing to creating art to taking moments to cuddle with our loves ones, be they human or of the four legged furry variety. Humor and play can help a lot too.

Whatever is calming for you. Whatever brings you back to center and that you can commit to doing on a regular schedule.

A spiritual practice can be quite simple and yet quite effective. Sometimes if I am having a long or difficult day during the week here at church, I come in here. I sit sit alone in this sanctuary for just a few moments and feel the echoes of the sacred things that happen when we worship together in this space each Sunday.

And my breathing slows. And my thoughts stop racing.

And my emotions find calmness. And my heart begins to soar.

And I am able to know again that which I hold most important. I experience again that which is larger than me but of which I am part.

That which is sacred washes over me again in that quiet stillness.

Where do you find that stillness? What brings you that calm? What slows your breathing even as your heart soars?

My friends, stress and anxiety do not survive our encounters with the sacred.

Amen

Benediction

Now, as we go out into our world;
May the covenant that binds us together dwell in your heart and nourish your days,
May the mission that we share inspire your thoughts and light your way,
May the spirit of this beloved community go with you until next we are gathered again.
May the congregation say, “Amen” and “Blessed Be”.
Go in peace.

Podcasts of this and other sermons are also available for free on iTunes. You can find them here.

Most sermons delivered at the First UU Church of Austin during the past 16 years are available online through this website. You will find links to them in the right sidebar menu labeled Sermons. The Indexes link leads to tables of all sermons for each year listed by date (newest to oldest) with topic and speaker. Click on the topic to go to a sermon.