A brief pastoral letter.
I do not usually put church-related stuff here, but I received such overwhelmingly positive feedback for this letter to my congregation that I figured it might benefit you, too.
I have heard from many of you a heightened sense of fear and anxiety as a result of the attacks in Israel and the subsequent military operation in Gaza. Add to this the the ongoing war in Ukraine, our own political turmoil, and other acts of violence across the globe and you can very easily succumb to ‘doomscrolling’ or ‘doomwatching’ through the news. Anxiety born of news-watching can have significant negative effects on your mental, physical, and spiritual health.
I am writing as your pastor to encourage you to take a few steps even today to prevent entering into anxiety and succumbing to fear.
1) Recognize that nothing is new. As the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” The violence and hatred plastering our news cycles are common to human history and saturate the Bible. These are familiar times, not new times, and the more you read the Bible the more you can identify with the emotions of people in the Bible during those difficult times they experienced. If something is familiar, it does not need to be feared. Rather, it needs to be understood and handled in a way that people in Scriptures understood and handled it. So it is with war, antisemitism, political turmoil, and all sorts of violence. Nothing here is new. Since it is not new, the Bible has real answers for it.
2) Pray the Psalms. I know this can sound trite; of course a pastor suggests praying! But I am suggesting this because prayer both works and is the #1 way people in the Bible respond to moments of fear and anxiety. In the midst of all the war and political turmoil, God’s people wrote prayer poems and songs! How much more fearful could you be than David in Psalm 54, which says “‘A psalm of David, regarding the time the Ziphites came and said to Saul, ‘We know where David is hiding.’” David was literally running for his life and hiding in a cave, thinking he would be found any moment! Read the Psalm even now. Notice he is clear about his fear “For strangers are attacking me; violent people are trying to kill me. They care nothing for God.” But what does he pray? “But God is my helper. / The Lord keeps me alive!” Let these words be calming even today.
3) Identify that fear can be an expression of idolatry. God commanded his people to “fear the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 10:12), the kind of reverent acknowledgement of the mighty power of Yahweh, the God above all gods. Fearing other things often leads us to center those things on our hearts rather than the Mighty One of Israel. Fear of surrounding nations lead the nation of Israel to abandon God time and again. So he tells Joshua, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Fear and anxiety are significant signs that we believe something or someone else is stronger or greater that God. We need to pause and recognize the ways in which our doomscrolling or doomwatching are indicators of disbelief. God is in control! His arm is not too short to save! Take heart, Jesus said, for “I have overcome the world.”
4) Don’t settle for answers to fear that are anything less than God Himself. You will face constant temptation to overcome fear with all sorts of things that are not God. Politicians will promise they have answers. TV preachers and salesmen will tell you that if you just give money here or there that everything will get better. We will seek distractions in our TV and music and movies. We may do all sorts of things to feel peace in days of turmoil: buy things we really don’t need, eat more (or less) than we should, blame other people who we turn into the enemy, become reclusive and refuse to engage in society, and more. All of these become mini idols because they make us feel good and give us some façade of control. But none of these are God! These idols can control and consume us. Idols can never solve our fears because they cannot operate in the space of our minds and souls. They are not soul-surgeons; they only work with as much influence as we give them. They are scalpel-less surgeons, unable to penetrate to the innermost parts wherein our deepest fears reside. We need God working in us by His Spirit to change us into His Image, not things or ideas that make us feel good at any given moment. Do not settle for anything less than God Himself when it comes to your fear. Everything else has the danger of letting you down or consume you.
5) Turn it off. In all seriousness, a great deal of our current anxieties about the news are simply this: we are getting too much news all the time. We cannot process as much information as we receive on a daily basis. It is impossible! News in the days of Jesus took days, weeks, months to travel. Daily life involved in-person conversations and shared community, not watching TV or flicking through websites for hours on end. When the news broke it happened in community so people could talk about it, pray about it, and figure out how to respond. Nowadays we sit in our rooms alone and saturate in fearful headlines. We don’t process things like we need to, and we don’t pull ourselves away from the news like we must. I invite you: turn it off. All of it! Go for a walk or a drive. Enjoy the lovely colors of our Fall weather. God has painted for us in this season an extraordinary palette with the best weather in the world! See what God has made, rather than the destruction man makes, and see that God is good.
These are just a few thoughts that came to my mind this morning. I am praying for you, even as I am praying for our world. You are not alone in your experiences, and there is absolutely no shame in talking about your fear these days. We are the Body of Christ, and we operate as a community — there are no solo agents in the Body! So, if you want to talk, let’s talk. Need prayer? We will pray.
Let us love one another as Christ loves us.
A final note. Some will be motivated to ask, “what do I DO about this?” I want to give you a few outlets for your desire to act based on my experience in the human rights and advocacy world. Two immediate ideas:
a) Support the CMA in their work in Israel and the Middle East. I know I risk sounding repetitive, but I genuinely believe in the work of the CMA in the Middle East because I know people there doing amazing work. Our relief team will also be present wherever they are able to enter in the coming months. https://secure.cmalliance.org/give/
b) Fight rising waves of antisemtic and antimuslim hate by loving your Jewish and Muslim neighbors today. Speak with them. Drop a note of kindness. Assure them that you are there if they encounter hatred in their lives. Don’t make a big deal of talking about everything happening in the Middle East right now — they do not need to relive the news — but let them know you are there for them on a very personal level. Ask about their families and offer to pray for their needs.