31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
February 25, 2018
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
After months of anxiety, Phil finally got up the courage to text his neighbor, Harry. He wrote:
Harry, I have a confession to make. I’ve been riddled with guilt these past few months. I’ve been trying to get the courage to tell you to your face. I’m texting you because I can’t live with myself a moment longer without you knowing. The truth is I have been sharing your wife, day and night when you’re not around, in fact, probably more than you. I haven’t been able to get it at home recently, but that’s no excuse. The temptation was just too much. I can no longer live with the guilt and I hope you will accept my sincerest apologies and forgive me. It won’t happen again. Please suggest a fee for usage and I’ll pay you. Regards, Phil
Harry, feeling betrayed and furious, immediately dropped his cell phone, ran next door, and without saying a word, slashed all Phil’s tires, ripped out his mail box, threw his grill and lawn furniture in the pool, and splattered paint all over Phil’s garage door. Then Harry returned home, where he poured himself a stiff drink, sat down on the sofa, picked up his phone, and saw he had a second message from his neighbor sent a few seconds after the first.
It said, “This is Phil next door again. Sorry about the typo on my last text. I expect you figured it out anyway, and noticed that darned Auto-Correct changed ‘WiFi’ to ‘Wife.’
Isn’t technology great? Regards, Phil”
I hope you have never slashed someone’s tires or ripped out their mailbox; however we have all had moments when we were anxious, angry, or afraid and didn’t think; like Harry, we simply reacted.
At moments like these, when we are anxious, afraid, and reactive, the most primitive part of our brain, the brain stem, is in control. Often called the reptilian brain, the brain stem is in charge of survival, and it takes over whenever you are in danger, real or perceived. The brain stem, the reptilian brain, is very limited in what it can do. It can’t think three steps ahead. It can’t learn. It can’t consider the feelings and motivations of others. It is only concerned with getting food and keeping you from being food, so it only knows how to fight or to take flight.
When our reptilian brain is in control, we are totally fear-driven. Which explains why when we are anxious or afraid, we react instead of taking time to think, to contemplate, to consider the other person’s feelings, and maybe get that second text. The reptilian brain, out of biological necessity, reacts quickly to the moment and sometimes that does not make for the best decisions.
I was once told that when the Dalai Lama was asked by people for the quickest and best solution, he responded by saying, ‘You can’t have both. You can either have the quickest solution or the best solution.’
In our passage from scripture this morning, we see the truth of those words. ‘You can either have the quickest solution or the best. You cannot have both.’
In this moment in their lives, following God’s call, Abram and Sarai had already left their homeland and traveled to a promised land. They have yet to receive the new names of Abraham and Sarah, however God has already promised Abram twice that God would bless Abram with a child and that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars.
What Abram and Sarai have not figured out yet is how? When? They were old. We assume they have been trying to have a child for years, and as anyone who has tried and tried to have a child can tell you, each month that goes by only produces more anxiety.
Abram and Sarai were probably both feeling a lot of pressure, and so Sarai, in her anxiety, begins to do something that a lot of us do under stress. She begins to over-function. She feels personally responsible for why they do not have a child. She says to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children.” (Genesis 16:2) She also seems to feel personally responsible for making that child happen, someway, somehow. And Sarai is also very desperate to have a child of her own.
There are moments when through prayer and discernment, through thoughtfulness and careful listening, we understand that God is calling us to be a part of God’s plan, to undertake this ministry, to act and go in that direction.
And there are moments, when in our fear, in our desperation, in our real or perceived danger, our reptilian brain completely takes over, and we cannot think. We cannot connect with others, even God. We cannot have faith. We can only react.
This is one of those moments in Sarai and Abram’s life.
Just as Sarai plans, her servant, her slave-girl, Hagar does become pregnant with Abram’s child, but what Sarai does not expect is that Hagar would despise her mistress, looking upon Sarai with contempt. The Hebrew word could even be translated as ‘curses’ her mistress.
Does Hagar think she is better than her mistress Sarai and lord her pregnancy over Sarai? Or does Hagar hate her mistress for forcing her to be their surrogate?
Sarai probably doesn’t know. Sarai absolutely does not care. Again, in her anxiety, working out of her reptilian brain, Sarai cannot connect with others or feel the emotions of compassion and sympathy. She is all eat or be eaten. She saw Hagar as a tool to get a child, and now she sees Hagar only as a threat.
So Sarai does what we all do when we are anxious and upset, she involves a third person. It’s called triangulation, and although it is often an unhealthy way to deal with our anxiety, it is also a supremely effective and quick way of temporarily diminishing our anxiety. So, of course, we do it all of the time.
Joanna is unhappy with a decision her boss made, unhappy with a lot of decisions her boss has made, so she complains to her co-worker Fred. Joanna feels better in the moment. Fred feels worse. And the tension between Joanna and her boss continues to go unresolved.
Bringing a third or forth or even fifth person into your conflict never solves the problem, but it’s a quick solution. So Sarai complains to Abram, and even tries to blame him, naming him as the cause of her anxiety and unhappiness. Again, the blame game, another very popular and also completely ineffective way to deal with anxiety.
Is Abram being supportive? Empowering? Or just trying to escape the discomfort of Sarai’s anger and anxiety when he tells her to deal with Hagar however she pleases? Whatever his motivation, Abram is not helpful, and Sarai compounds one bad anxious decision with another. She deals harshly with Hagar, and Hagar runs away, taking the child in her womb as she flees.
Lucky for all three of these people that God’s promises do not depend on them, and that in the end, they are all taken care of and blessed by God. Left to their own devices, there is not telling what the outcome would be.
Sarai, Abram, and Hagar are not the only ones living in anxiety and fear. We are a people living in anxiety and fear, a people caught in the cycle of anxiety and fear, too often making quick and reactive decisions instead of thoughtful, helpful ones, too often feeling personally responsible for everything and everyone.
Throughout Lent, we will be focusing on how to let go of anxiety and fear and cultivate peacefulness in our lives. Through worship and activities beyond worship, we will nurture practices that help us be thoughtful and discerning, peace-filled and faithful.
Cultivating peacefulness in our lives is not only a good idea for our physical health. It not only helps us make better decisions. Cultivating peacefulness also nurtures our relationship with God – because it is only when we move out of our reptilian brain that we can feel emotions like trust, love, and faith, connecting fully with God and others.
So if you begin to feel anxious, when you begin to feel anxious, don’t follow Harry or Sarai’s example. Don’t destroy personal property; don’t rush to a decision; don’t triangulate or place blame; don’t take your anxiety out on others.
Instead, take a deep breath and remember that you are not personally responsible for everything. God is. Take a deep breath, even laugh, and remember God’s promises, remember God’s faithfulness. Remember that that thing that seems beyond our strength, beyond our resources, that thing that seems impossible, that’s God’s. And God will find a way to do the impossible.
So take a deep breath, and then take another and maybe for good measure, take a third, and reserve your reptilian brain for those moments when you really do need to flight or fight so you won’t be eaten, and foster thoughtfulness, cultivate peacefulness, nurture faithfulness, and know that there is no reason to worry or fear because with God all things are possible.