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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Indeed a gift

This is Post #7 about my trip to Korea for the WCC. Please click on these links for Post #1Post # 2,Post #3Post #4Post #5 or Post #6.

I have not blogged since the official first day of the WCC and now it is the night before the last day. But that is because I’ve continued to drink from a fire hose. I’m practicing self compassion concerning my lack of blogging and not being too hard on myself 😉

We have been going going going for 2 weeks straight. In that light, I have made decisions that tended toward time with new friends and not depriving myself excessively of sleep, so the processing of this intense experience has been largely put on hold. Thankfully though, my notebook has captured 92% of what I have heard and experienced, even if I have not been able to digest it all yet.

But I think I will start my processing with this: This time here has been a gift.  It may take me days and weeks and months and years to unpack all that I have learned, experienced, and discussed, to see and know the fruit of this time, to realize the immensity of this opportunity and see its effects on me and the world. But nonetheless, it has indeed been a gift.  A gift that I will steward.

That does not mean my time in South Korea as part of GETI alongside the WCC has been all rosy. It has been exhausting, challenging, frustrating, disheartening, and difficult at various times. We have experienced difficult large group dynamics, small group frustrations, and intercultural challenges.  We have heard about more church politics than my poor heart can handle, listened in solidarity with all those who shared about injustices in their home contexts, battled the exhaustion fueled by an ambitious schedule, and caught various  colds and other sicknesses because our bodies are run down.

But we have also had experiences of pure gift.  We’ve shared and appreciated each others’ various cultural contexts and Christian traditions. We heard enlightening speakers both as GETI students and in the larger WCC assembly. We have discussed various ecumenical issues with our small groups and wrestled over hot theological topics over dinner and drinks at night. We’ve walked to and from the convention center a few times to soak in some needed fresh air and we’ve bonded over shared bus-weariness after many hours cooped up together on various occasions. We know we have beds we could sleep on in all corners of the world now and we know we have fellow travelers on the journey in our common goal of Christ and the Kingdom of God, despite our theological variations and our real differences.

I’m grateful for it all. The tough parts and the more frequent, “wow, is-this-real-life?” parts. I’m thankful for this challenge and this gift. I’m in awe at my new friendships, my mind is exploding with all it has learned and will learn in continued study of these topics, and my heart has been expanded 1000 times over in love with God, with God’s people, and with the whole world.

I’m grateful for renewed hope. Confronting the despair of politics in the church, the despair of human suffering and injustice, and the despair of disunity in the Body of Christ, my hope is surprisingly rejuvenated and enlarged. It is more real and more fervent in light of it all.

I’m thankful for the role this experience has played in helping me become the person I’m meant to be.

And despite so much gratitude, I’m ready to come home. I’m ready not to eat out for two meals per day plus a hotel buffet for breakfast (though don’t get me wrong, that was an incredibly generous provision and I’m grateful). I’m ready to see my Chicago peeps and receive oodles of pics in real time of my new niece (born today!). I’m ready to face real life and catch up on my homework (because I’m in the right field and love my classes and miss my school). I’m ready to sleep in my bed, go running regularly, and eat lots of vegetables (not at breakfast though, which is when they’re most available here).

Tomorrow is our last day! Time to catch a few Zzzz’s so I can soak it up 🙂 

With a grateful heart,
Melissa

P.S. Speaking of Zzzz’s… I’m finishing this really late after a spontaneous round of late night (one) beer and theology session so I hope it has a semblance of coherence despite the late hour.

My seminar group sans one. I clearly did the common Korean picture sign too soon.
My seminar group sans one. I clearly did the common Korean picture sign too soon.
An Orthodox, a Catholic, and a Protestant, walk into a coffee shop...oh wait, that happened today
An Orthodox, a Catholic, and a Protestant, walk into a coffee shop…oh wait, that happened today.
Victor was passing time while holding my camera.
Victor was passing time while holding my camera.
At our host church in Gwanju with one of our hostesses and Noria, my seminar group friend from Malaysia
At our host church in Gwanju with one of our hostesses and Noria, my seminar group friend from Malaysia
In Gwanju over the weekend
In Gwanju over the weekend