Even when the Rev. John Stephens quotes the Apostle Paul’s writings in Philippians 4:6 that say, “Do not be anxious about anything,” the Houston area pastor recognizes the struggle.
“One of the hardest commands is not to worry about anything,” says Stephens, senior pastor at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Chapelwood, Texas. “Worry is constantly deconstructing us, fragmenting us. We are distracted and scattered.”
Although anxiety is an understandable byproduct in a world that lives with disease (including a global pandemic for more than two years), disaster and despair, some United Methodist church leaders say it’s possible to limit or eliminate the fear and worry that threaten many.
“People think peace is when all things get resolved,” Stephens comments. “That’s not what peace is. If you’re just talking about the circumstances changing, then that’s relief. Peace is a state of being and only God can give peace.”
The Apostle Paul prescribes prayer
So, where does that process begin and how? Scripture tells us, in the second part of verse 6, “…by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
“I think Paul is giving us a prescription for taking the worry and getting us to the peace, the oneness and the unity with God,” Stephens teaches.
When Stephens talks to his congregation about prayer, he usually directs them to a couple of types of praying: centering prayer, which can involve praying Scripture (also called Lectio Divina); and contemplative prayer, which involves sitting and listening to God.
The purpose of the prayers, he says, is to “move yourself out of the way.”
In addition to praying, the apostle also suggests, in verse 8, to redirect your thoughts, writing, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
“Paul wasn’t a psychologist, but there is all of this science about (your brain’s) neuropathways and how changing your thoughts can change your neuropathways,” says Stephens, adding that he believes Paul is telling us to think positively.
Look for the beautiful
Focusing on what is beautiful and good is how the Rev. Donna Pritchard chooses to combat worry. Whether that’s a flower blooming in her yard or lines from her favorite poems, the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon, uses this coping mechanism to stay connected with God.
“These are signs of God’s creative presence in this world right now,” she shares. “Just because we’re experiencing life in a new, strange and difficult way, does not mean that God is not with us. We need to remember that this moment is still God’s moment.”
In addition to looking at the positive in the world, Pritchard finds ways to laugh every day.
“Don’t forget the power of humor. Particularly at a time when people may be acutely aware of the pain in the world, it helps to say there are reasons to laugh,” she explains, adding that laughter benefits a person’s immune system too.
The Rev. Matt Hall comes at this topic through the lens of recovery. As the associate pastor of recovery ministries at First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee, — and as someone in recovery himself – Hall understands fear and its pitfalls.
“Something that I continuously tell folks is that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety,” he says. “The opposite of addiction is community.”
When Hall found himself missing physical community because of pandemic-related state and local government mandates during the past couple of years, Hall worked to keep an emotional connection through online meetings, regular phone calls and other creative means, such as Netflix viewing parties.
Personally, he’s come up with his own list of ways to push through the solitude so that it does not lead to fear.
Try something new, revisit something old
“I’ve taken up cooking,” Hall shares, noting the pandemic opened up time he previously didn't have.
“This is a great opportunity to try new things,” Hall suggests, saying that trying something new without an audience has advantages. “When’s a better time – and safer place – to fail than when confined to you own house?”
While Hall may be taking on new experiences, one way he is combating worry is by eliminating other things.
“I’m being very intentional about not following any news outlets,” Hall says. “I feel like any breaking news will come to me one way or another. It isn’t healthy for me to be bombarded by it.”
Instead, Hall turns to items that have brought him comfort during past difficult times, such as books.
“I’m revisiting Bob Goff’s ‘Love Does,’” he says. “It’s one of two books I own on my Kindle. I’ve probably read that book 20 or 30 times.”
Of course, prayer is part of Hall’s prescription too.
“As I’ve prayed for God to take away the fear, then I do something,” Hall shares. “In my own personal experience, I’ve found that my prayers are better when coupled with actions on my end.”
Actions, for Hall, include making a daily to do list, which always consists of a list of 10 people to call.
“If they are in my phone,” Hall says, “I believe they are in there for a reason and that reason may be to call and say, 'Hello,' today.”
Note: This article and the opinions from United Methodist pastors are not intended to replace medical advice. If you are experiencing depression or prolonged bouts of anxiety, please seek help from medical professionals.
Crystal Caviness works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email.
This story was originally published on April 20, 2020, and updated September 3, 2021 and June 2, 2022.