Living in Anxious Times
Living in anxious times – I am blessed not to have any major sources of worry in my life right now, but I certainly spend lots of time in pastoral conversation with those who do. I spent time this past week with Dreamers on campus, students who enrolled long ago in DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. They now fear deportation, and wonder if enrolling in DACA wasn’t a terrible mistake in the long run. They gave all their personal information to the government in order to enroll and now, with a change of administration they wonder if the information they shared will be used to put them (and their extended families) first in line for deportation. They feel very vulnerable, exposed, and anxious.
We have other undocumented students, plus undocumented staff and faculty, who also feel this way. Ten percent of the Facilities staff at Princeton is from Haiti – 10%. Many came to this country following the earthquake there some years ago, under a perfectly legal program to help affected persons survive, and there is now talk of that program, too, being dismantled and its recipients deported. Millions of people across the country are very anxious about losing their health care coverage. Within this beautiful sanctuary and everywhere are people who are deeply worried about their own health or that of a loved one. Many live with the greatest anxiety about surviving disease. Natural disasters seem to keep coming – hurricanes, earthquake, fire, and innumerable people (and those who love them) are in the depths of anxiety. Shootings, as in Las Vegas, have many feeling anxiously avoidant of concerts, clubs, restaurants, shops, schools, universities, houses of worship. Anxiety is very high in many countries about the possibility of weapons being fired between the U.S. and North Korea. There will always be plenty about which to be anxious – jobs, kids’ welfare, health, relationships – and then there are the added stressors of this political moment. We are living in particularly anxious times.
Our biblical texts for today remind us that anxiety is part of the human condition, throughout the millennia, and they show us both how to respond well to anxiety and how to respond not-so-well. One of the greatest examples in Judeo-Christian history of not responding well to anxiety is that of the Hebrews’ construction of a golden calf to worship instead of God Almighty. It may feel easy to chuckle at their foolishness but let’s not – they had overwhelming reasons to be anxious and to try to come up with alternatives to their predicament. They had been lead through the wilderness for years, with God going before them as a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. When they needed food – in fact, when they complained for want of tasty food – it fell from the sky at night and awaited them afresh each morning. It was an anxious journey in general – from safety (if in slavery) to freedom in a land they just had to believe was real and that they could make a life in. They were vulnerable to the elements every step of the journey. There was much to worry about.
And then Moses said, “I’m going up the mountain to talk to God, I’ll be right back,” and he didn’t come back. The food kept appearing as God had made it do before, but any other reminder of God’s presence was gone. Moses (and God) were gone for a month. They were gone another ten days after that. And then the people did what folks everywhere do when they are worried – we make a plan to take care of this matter ourselves, we decide it is time to take this into our own hands. We know what’s needed – why wait? They melted down their gold jewelry, fashioned it into a calf, proclaimed it the God of Israel, and worshiped it.
How often do we prefer to cling to – even worship – what we can see and touch, what is tangible, rather than what is not, like… the promises of our faith. They may not come true! Let’s make a Plan B. Let’s put our real faith into our work and worship our salaries. Let’s make idols of whatever we currently believe we control, from career to wellness, social status to possessions. I find it easy to think that, were I among the Hebrews in the desert so long ago, I would have been the holdout in continuing to worship the one true God, but when I’m honest with myself, I admit that I’d have been just as eager to create a tangible, seemingly dependable alternative.
In the city of Philippi, in the first century, members of the new church there were living with tremendous anxiety. We don’t have copies of their communications to Paul to help us understand the details, but we know that they were corresponding with Paul while he was in prison. That may have been source enough of their anxiety. The letters of Paul end while he was in prison. The trail goes cold, and scholars thus believe that this prolific communicator did not emerge from prison alive. As he writes to the Church at Philippi about how to live faithfully in the midst of their great anxiety, he is certainly undergoing his own, and it may be that his imprisonment is the great source of their worry.
Paul tells the Philippians to “stand firm” in Christ, first by supporting the women and men who worked most closely with him to found and build their faith community. In the midst of so much to be genuinely worried about he says, “Rejoice!” Rejoice in Christ always, he is near. Let’s hold to that fact too, when we are very worried – Christ is near. He is unseen but as close to us as our breathing, and so the challenges we face are never endured alone but in the closest company of our very savior. Joy is to be found at all times – really? Joy? Even when the most important person to you is in danger of dying in prison? Anxiety specializes in pushing away any feelings of joy. Anxiety is a straitjacket, a personal prison that drains promise and hope from every situation, to say nothing of joy. Paul says, “Rejoice in Christ.” Even if the circumstances of your life don’t seem to suggest celebration or joy, always find your joy in Christ. His presence is over, under, beside, inside, and throughout every worrisome thing that can come to you, and there is nothing in human experience, even death itself, that can compromise that fact. No matter how much anxiety may claim your heart, mind, spirit, and gut, no matter how locked down you feel, find your joy in Christ and let your heart soar. It doesn’t mean that you live in denial; it means you live in acceptance of the amazing promises of our faith. When life is at its most difficult, those promises don’t evaporate; they remain truer than ever. Even – or especially – if they are your only current source of joy, hold on to them.
Paul writes, “Do not worry about anything.” Well – that’s a lot easier said than done! He continues, though, to recommend that we pray and relate to God continually, as we name before God all that we need to share. Don’t worry – and pray your heart out. No, this isn’t denial at all. It is an active, even prosecuting faith, firm in its own agency, doing all that it can.
What is the result of our joy, prayer, and thanksgiving? “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” writes Paul. The peace of God is something we understand but can never adequately describe. It is something we recognize in our deepest spirit and it fuels the cellular levels of our lives, even when all that is on the surface of our lives is challenge upon challenge. The peace of God is independent of all the world’s issues, all of our own obsessions, every last thing we might worry about. The peace of God simply is, and is available to us.
We can choose where to let our thoughts dwell when we are anxious, even to the point of terror. We curb our anxiety by choosing to place our thoughts, says the Apostle, on those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. How often do we nurture negative thoughts in ourselves, sometimes out of self-pity, and then follow them down a dark hole of self-reinforcing despair. If we deny the temptation to do this and act always out of virtue, the peace of God will be with us.
A question we always can ask ourselves that will help us to focus well and remember our joy is, “Who got me this far?” Who got the Hebrews from slavery to the very foot of Mt. Sinai? It is God and Christ, who endowed you with the talents, friends, family, and hope that have played a role in your life – in your intelligence, artistry, humor, whatever you value. Even from the prison in which he would die, Paul dares to tell us to rejoice. For joy is about perception, not reception. It is about what we see within our cluttered field of vision and not about what happens to us. Our joy is rooted in how we perceive God’s presence and not in what we get from life. And that is the key to experiencing the peace of God.
May that deepest peace come over every one of us and even all the world, living as we are with so many things that make us genuinely anxious. Life is hard, but the promises of our faith are infinitely strong and also eternally true, and thanks be to God.