Have No Anxiety At All: A Non-anxious Reflection on Philippians 4:4-7

I preached this reflection for my Lay Leadership of Prayer and Preaching class. My group led Evening Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent (except we did it on Monday during class, so not exactly Sunday). 

Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

True life confession, I find these words of scripture offensive. My high school self, on-fire with the faith for the first time, on the other hand, found them inspiring and encouraging. I reveled in the thought of a God that could take away all my anxiety, the thought of rejoicing in the Lord, always.

But not anymore. I still revel in the thought and the possibility, but now, these words mostly feel like weight and pressure, at least at first glance.  The freedom in them is a bit harder to understand. The simplicity of “do not be anxious” came into question pretty quickly as life progressed after those first high school days of on-fire faith. I realized it wasn’t so simple. Life gives us too many reasons to be anxious.

I’m not a parent myself but my friends and mentors tell me it can be like your heart is walking around outside of your body. The anxiety that Nancy must have felt as she got the frantic call in the middle of the night about her daughter in the ER is not easily remedied by a Bible verse.  Or I think of my friends who have partners or children in the military, who feel their precarious absence so sharply, and who pray for their safe return every day, knowing that that it is not a given. Or the parents in some areas of our own beloved city who fear letting their children play outside because the warzone is not across the pond but more like across the street.  I have friends with anxiety disorders, some of the most faith-filled people I know whose brains sometimes need more than prayer to help overcome the pervasive anxiety that disrupts their daily lives. I too, have known what it means to have the anxiety get to be just too much, when my body has had enough and a sudden anxiety attack overcomes. And I have felt the failure of those moments. A warm wash of shame and failure that could potentially be compounded by a platitude. “Have no anxiety at all.”

But how to not be anxious? You see the news. You know what it’s like to wait for a diagnosis for yourself or a loved one. You have probably missed someone so much that your whole body aches. Do not be anxious? Easier said than done, Thank you St. Paul.

Is our faith just too weak?  To this I want to declare an emphatic “NO.” The darkness of these winter nights during this season of Advent can all too often mirror the darkness and anxiety we live through in our lives. But. St Paul says more than just “Do not be anxious” in his letter.  He reminds the Philippians that the Lord is near. He doesn’t offer a platitude like I thought; he offers a person, a relationship. The Lord is near. To the Philippians, they probably thought this meant to not be anxious about the Lord’s second coming, but here we are 2000 years later and we know that the Lord is near in another way. We are preparing again to celebrate the miracle of God with us, of God become human so as to be as near to us as our own humanity.

And how do we know this? Thanksgiving. Not our recent holiday, but the action. “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” This is how we know the Lord is with us.  We count the ways daily. We don’t relegate giving thanks to that holiday to this past Thursday. Instead, we let that reminder of our Thanksgiving holiday, here in the States at least, serendipitously lead us into the Advent season, making the radical decision to choose gratitude amidst the messes and anxieties of life. It is not preexisting joy that makes us grateful but gratitude that makes us joyful. And this joy is the awareness of God at work in our lives. A God who loves us so much that he became one of us. She is a God who does not leave us alone in our suffering, but instead, becomes the light in our darkness (motion to paschal candle).

Thanksgiving is the key. Thanksgiving is the way to know that the Lord is near and we can rejoice. Anxiety does not have the final say. Thanksgiving…for everything. The good and the bad. For the smile of the baby across the church, for gentle snowfall, for your daughter’s surgeon and for your son’s safe return from Iraq or from maybe just from school. But we also sometimes give thanks for those hard things in our lives because we know that they are all areas that while God did not choose them, God meets us right there in them and they are things which God can redeem. Nothing is outside of God’s grace. Nothing—outside of God’s redeeming love. The Lord is near.

So maybe I reject St. Paul’s words too quickly. They are not an offensive platitude but they offer a relationship with a God who is with us. The two words of “thank you” keep us in relationship with the God who can handle my anxiety and yours. They keep me in touch with God, who is our peace, a surpassing truth deeper than the passing anxiety of the details of our lives. I’m sure that Mary had more than a little anxiety facing her family after becoming pregnant without being married, more than a little anxiety carrying Jesus in her womb for nine months, traveling to unfamiliar land for a census, and then unexpectedly giving birth in stable. She nevertheless knew, her Lord was near. “Have no anxiety at all” is not an impossible platitude, but instead an offer of a deeper peace and a lasting joy amidst the messes of our lives.

Maybe this is why Master Eickhart said that if the only prayer we ever said in our lives was ‘thank you’, that would be enough. ‘Thank you’ reminds us that the Lord is near. Like Mary this Advent season, we travel with wombs full of anxieties and hopes and expectations, let us say “thank you” to the One who is with us, the One who never leaves us to walk that road alone.

 

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Drop Keys of Freedom: A Reflection on Luke 20:27-40

Below is a reflection inspired by Saturday’s gospel reading, which can be found here. I shared it at a Celebration of the Word (with Distribution of Holy Communion) that I held as part of my Lay Leadership of Prayer and Preaching class. The whole service had to be video-taped and I have to review it with my professor. Guess who is not looking forward to that part? 😉 
 
golden-key
 

The small person
Builds cages for everyone
He
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck her head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners. (Read x2)
– Hafiz

The Sadducees in this story are those small people. They are trying to trap Jesus. Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection. They were a conservative group of Jews whose only source of authority was the Torah, the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible, and in that, they saw no evidence of the resurrection. Their worldview was black and white. Their appeal to authority secure. Their confidence, unwavering. The Sadducees were a rather well-off bunch comparatively; they had no need to hope for a resurrection in the same way the majority of the impoverished Jews did.  So they went up to Jesus with their “question.”

While there is some debate in the academic world about whether there are stupid questions or not, there are certainly wrong questions, questions that trap and build cages, questions that are dead-ends. Questions that presume the answers. These questions steal freedom and provide an answer of condemnation in their very asking. The Sadducees ask a wrong question.  It is a ridiculous example based on Jewish law meant to ensnare Jesus.  They want Jesus to crumble and they want to feel secure on their own high horse. They try to build a cage.

And Jesus replies dropping keys of freedom. He meets them right where they are, in all their hubris, appealing only to their source of authority, the Torah, and proclaims that God is the God of the living.  Jesus sees the cage they are building and instead declares freedom and hope for them and for others.  The Sadducees, in their Temple of comfort and luxury, are removed from the suffering of everyday life and their message via their question tries to heap more despair on an already suffering people, but Jesus, who suffers with the people, offers a message of hope and resurrection when it feels like darkness, despair, and division might be the end of the story.

Do we ask the wrong questions? Questions meant to trap and cage? Questions meant to justify our own righteousness? Questions where we’re actually asserting our answer? Often, these questions are judgments in the silence of our minds. We look at a disheveled homeless person on the street and we wonder why they don’t get a job instead of reminding ourselves that we know nothing about the circumstances that led them to this place.  We hear a person goes to Latin Mass or to school at CTU, or CUA, or….. the list goes on and we make assumptive judgments about their “orthodoxy.” Even of the same religion, we assume and then we box each other in.  Or a parent yells at their struggling teenager walking in a few minutes late, “Where have you been?!?!”  Or maybe in our angst and grief, we cry out to God, “what did I do wrong that my loved one had to die?” Or on another dangerous and irrelevant level, we say things like, “What was she wearing?” after an assault is alleged.

These are all variations of the wrong question.

Jesus upends our wrong, dead-end questions and answers with mercy and love and promises of new life to come. He speaks hope for those caught in darkness. He reminds us God is the God of the living, not the dead. These dead-end questions show that life has nothing to do with whether we’re still breathing.

We are alive when we ask questions and don’t presume to know the answer. We drop keys of freedom when we manage our judgments in our mind when we begin to condemn somebody instead of hearing their story. We speak freedom and life when we express genuine interest in the various expressions of our Catholic faith without crying heresy at the first sign of difference. We open room for breathing and surviving our own grief when we move from questions that condemn ourselves in our suffering to words that simply say, “God, I don’t understand and I’m hurting.” What if our first question to our teenagers was “Are you okay?” when they walk in the door, leaving space for their hearts to feel heard. And what if we asked different questions about gender and the role our culture has to play in violations of women instead of considering asking “what was she wearing.”

There may or may not be stupid questions in class, but there are wrong questions in life. Let’s drop keys of freedom by asking questions that are open-ended and give life instead of presumptuous ones meant to condemn. And let’s instead choose to be like Jesus and rather than taking these dead-end questions as personal attacks, turn them around to teach about the infinite mercy and love of our God.

The small person
Builds cages for everyone
He
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck her head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

 

 

 

Trey, the Unacknowledged Prophet: A reflection on Matthew 25: 14-30

This is a reflection that I preached in my Lay Leadership of Prayer and Preaching class this past week, but it is on today’s (Sunday, November 16th) Gospel reading. Maybe it  will invite you to consider a different angle on this common parable?
 

I am a people pleaser. I want people to like me, so my most frequent response to a petition to help with something is… yes, especially when the person asking is a person in authority. I’ve know this about myself, yet sometimes I still catch myself saying “yes” when a more appropriate answer would be, “I’m sorry, I really can’t help with that right now.”  But this is okay, I’m a work in progress, and on my better days, I can accept the grace of still being under construction.

But my people-pleasing ways worry me sometimes, because I worry that if I were in today’s gospel story, I would be more like the first two men, than the third. It might surprise you that I want to be like the third man (let’s call him Trey) since this story is often used as a call to live your vocation and use your talents to the fullest, and Trey doesn’t seem to do that. And the Master, who we presume must be God, gets pretty mad at our third man, Trey, for this.

But what if the Master isn’t God in this story?  That master is pretty angry and greedy anyway. Let’s flip this story on its head. What if Trey is actually the brave hero who has something to teach us? Should we bury our talents too? Depends on what talents are, I guess. Some people probably want me to bury my supposed-talent when I like the song in church and make a joyful noise unto the Lord, much to my neighbor’s dismay! But a talent in Jesus’ time is not a characteristic, or a gift. It was an amount of money or a weighed measurement worth a large sum, as we can tell by the way it can be traded and invested for more.

So maybe this is actually a story about money, about greed, and about a prophet I’m calling Trey.

You see, in their time and place, there was no stock market. You couldn’t just invest $500, and magically get $500 more (at least that’s how the stock market seems to work to me when it’s not a recession). No, if you got $500 more using your original $500, that means someone else, was $500 poorer. It was a limited system of scarcity. Trey decided his master’s request wasn’t acceptable. The master was asking Trey to make money off of his already-poor neighbors.

Trey had a choice. Would he be a people-pleaser and cooperate with a master who self-admits to greed and unjust practices? Would Trey exploit others on his master’s behalf? Or would he stand up for what was right and risk suffering for his decision?

This is why I want to be like Trey—Trey, who is the lowest of the servants, the one given the least amount of money, the one said to be the least capable—because Trey recognized exploitation and had the courage to stand against it.  He decided not to be a people pleaser and he refused to cooperate with greed. And then he paid the price. He suffered for risking and standing up to corruption.

We are called to be bold and prophetic like Trey. To not immediately say yes to everything that is asked of us, before we have discerned its value. We are called to courageously risk ourselves to not cooperate with injustice and greed. Sometimes this will mean suffering for our resistance. Maybe we choose not to shop at stores where products are made from child labor. It may cost more and ask us to cut back on our spending in other ways. Sometimes it could mean not going along with it at work when your boss wants to fudge some numbers and you’re expected to look the other way, no questions asked. Speaking up could have very real consequences, like it did for Trey, but to this, with appropriate discernment, we are called.

I’ve heard it said that courage means to tell the story of who we are with our whole heart. When we have courage to stand up prophetically against injustice like Trey, we tell the story of who we are, who we are called to be…. with our whole hearts. Hearts that are moved by love and not by people-pleasing. Hearts that choose justice over greed. Hearts that support those like Trey who face consequences for speaking up. Hearts that are full of gratitude for what we have instead of constantly striving for more than we need. Let’s be like Trey and with our prophetic actions, tell the story of who we are with our whole hearts.

 

Transfiguration Moments

 
I was privileged to write a reflection for this Sunday’s readings for Charis ministries. I’m happy to share it here: 

This gospel passage about the Transfiguration has always seemed confusing to me, or maybe, just a bit out of place. It feels too removed from Jesus’ day-to-day life with his disciples. Right before this passage, we hear that Jesus will suffer greatly (Mt16:21) and that the conditions for discipleship are not easy. They require us to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses (Mt 16:24). Immediately after this passage, we hear of healings, more passion predictions, and questions about… taxes (Mt 17:14-27). These are all stories and challenges relating to the physical world. The Transfiguration, on the other hand, is a quintessential transcendent experience. Despite my initial feeling that this is otherworldly and thus unable to speak to our lives today, the Transfiguration nonetheless can be seen as a needed revealing of Jesus’ glorious nature, and a needed revealing of strength for our own lives.

Yes, our world is a mess and our lives are often burdensome. We may feel this especially in this Lenten season when we are trying to clean our own houses and become more free to love others. We feel burdened by recurring sin, chronic illness, or broken relationships. But the Transfiguration can show us the glory of God amidst the mess. The Transfiguration is a revealing of Jesus’ true nature, a sign that he came not only to be in the mess, but to redeem it. The significance of the moment is evident as the words of Jesus’ baptism are echoed: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 17:5b/Mt 3:17b).

If we pay attention, the glorious moments amidst the mess of our own lives can be a bit more evident. We might hear those same words echoed in our hearts and in the hearts of others. We are reminded in Whom we trust and of the beauty that is actually all around us. These are our Transfiguration moments.

When life seems too difficult, maybe our Transfiguration moments can be “the strength that comes from God” that we hear of in today’s 2nd reading (2Tim 1:8b). They are reminders to trust in God’s beloved Son and to remember how God is at work all around us, even when we cannot see it. These moments can be footholds to steady ourselves when it seems too hard to carry our crosses. They are the events, people, and ideas that let us choose hope one more time, that give us strength to see the this-worldly burdens and challenges through from the pain of Good Friday to the joy of Easter Sunday.

Mass, Parking Tickets, and the Lie of Worry

I wrote this Scripture reflection for this Sunday’s readings for Catholics on Call. It first appeared on their site, here. 
 
You can find this Sunday’s readings, for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary time, here. 
 

I’m driving to Mass after having just skimmed these readings to prepare for this reflection, and I can’t find parking in the free lot, so I park on the street, in an area where the signage is unclear about whether the parking was free or not. Seeing as this parking stress is causing me to be/feel late, I decide to risk it and go into church without feeding the meter. The whole first ten minutes of Mass, I squirm in my seat, worrying that I am going to get a ticket (on my roommate’s car at that!). I justify my worrying with a running inner monologue, “I can’t afford a ticket… I’m in grad school for goodness’ sake! And my roommate will be nice about it but would of course not be happy that I got a ticket in her car. And did I already say I didn’t want to waste that money?! Groceries. Running shoes. Plane tickets to visit my niece and nephew. Spiritual Direction. The homeless man on the corner.  All more important uses of that money.”

My worrying is of control. But aside from leaving Mass, there is nothing I can do to fix the situation. This Sunday’s gospel reading comes into my mind, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat….If God so clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more provide for you?” The reading assures me that God will provide, but my usual response kicks in—that not everyone has their basic human needs provided for—and the inner monologue seems to be winning the worry war. But I try again, because it seems a waste to sit in Mass while my mind is outside trying to protect the car from being ticketed.

I preach gospel to myself: No, not everyone has their basic needs provided for, but that is not a lack of God’s provision; it is our lack of stewardship and sharing of the earth’s resources that interrupt that provision. But what is not interrupted, is God’s care, concern, and presence among us. We can trust that we are remembered, known, and not alone: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?” (Isaiah 49 in this Sunday’s first reading). And this Sunday’s psalm (Psalm 62) reminds me, “Rest in God alone, my soul.” Worrying just makes me feel like I’m doing something, but I’m not. Take a deep breath, and rest in God’s presence, here, in the present. Choose God, not mammon (Mt 6:24). That obviously doesn’t mean I shouldn’t steward my resources wisely, but in this case, in this moment, to keep worrying about the ticket would be to serve mammon instead of God.

The wind changes. My inner monologue reluctantly gives up on the worry and chooses Presence instead. Worrying about the future, worrying so that it feels like I’m doing something, is ultimately the belief that God will not be there whenever the next bad thing happens. It’s a lack of trust in God’s faithfulness and a false substitute for real action. Good and bad, abundance and lack, joy and tragedy, will continue to happen regardless of the amount that I worry. But when I worry, I rob myself of receiving the comfort of a God, who loves me like a mother, and I’m unable to offer my best self to the world, “as [a] servant of Christ and [a] steward of the mysteries of God” as I’m called to be (in this Sunday’s 2nd reading).

A potential parking ticket is a small example, of course, but if I can’t practice this gospel-living in the small stuff, how can I be expected to live it in the big stuff, when worrying feels even more “justified?”

May we forego the lie of worry today and instead choose to trust the loving provision of our God.
May we be moved to action when we are called and needed, and may we “Rest in God, alone” when we must accept the limitations of our circumstances.
Amen.

P.S. In case you were wondering, I didn’t get a ticket. 🙂