Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
We are living in anxious times. Fear of war and disease crisscross the planet. The world’s economic forecast seems to be teetering on recession. Still, Harvey Mackay dared to write in his weekly column, “I recently received a cartoon from a friend that showed a psychiatrist having a session with her patient. She said, “You worry too much … It doesn’t do any good …” And the patient answered, “It does for me … 95% of the things I worry about never happen!” Yes, sometimes humor can keep our fears at bay. Others choose to over compensate. One confident woman exclaimed brazenly. “I am not anxious. I am just extremely well educated about all the things that can go catastrophically wrong.” And sometimes, our concerns are the result of our own folly. There was a woman who went to the doctor for her yearly physical. The nurse started with certain basic items. “How much do you weigh?” she asked. “120,” the woman said. The nurse put her on the scale. It turned out her weight was 150. The nurse then asked, “Your height?” She answered, “5 feet, 8 inches.” The nurse checked and saw that she measured only 5 feet, 5 inches. Finally, she took the patient’s blood pressure and told the woman it was very high. “Of course it’s high!” she screamed. “When I came in here, I was tall and slender, and now I’m short and fat!” Yes, we are living in anxious times.
St. Paul had every right to feel anxious. When he wrote this morning’s Letter to the Philippians, he was imprisoned in Rome and his days were numbered. Tradition has it that soon after this epistle was written, Paul was taken by the Roman authorities and beheaded. They were truly anxious and troubling times, but St. Paul always knew that he had a choice. He could choose to be bitter and focusing on all the negative aspects of life, on all that was wrong and all that he had lost, or he could choose to focus on the positive and to mediate on all that he still had and all that was right in the world.
In the face of his own impending punishment and death, St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians was written as much for himself as it was for the church at Philippi. In it, he offered a prescription of sorts for anxiety and adversity. It is a pattern for living which is just as vital for our lives today as it was the time of Roman persecution.
It may be helpful to begin this meditation by first exploring the difference between anxiety and fear. There are times when fear is justified. Fear is facing a brown bear while camping, or sitting in a racing car in a tight curve. Fear may also be psychological. The fear of flying, or the fear of heights, can be debilitating. Anxiety, however, is a generalized and pervasive sense of tension and distress. It is a grey cloud or burden which weighs you down. It is somewhat related to fear. If I were to tell you that, “Something terrible is going to happen to you this week,” you would feel “anxious.” The letter to the Philippians addresses the general malaise of anxiety.
St. Paul’s prescription begins by stating that in times of adversity we all of has have been given a choice- we can choose between joy and despair. “Rejoice in the Lord always. And again, I will say, Rejoice.” Of course, we make choices every day. What is your goal in living? What is the main thrust of your life? When I asked this question to the members of my previous congregation, there was lots of variety. “I would like to have and live a healthy life style.” So would I. “I would like financial security- and perhaps a little savings for my children, and my old age.” So would I. “I would like to have people surround me, who love and care for me.” So would I! And on and on. These are all reasonable and understandable choices in any one’s life. But from the Christian perspective, there is another goal and that is we have been called to love our neighbor even if there is sacrifice and pain. That choice, however, it not always so easy.
Sometimes, we can be so burdened by both fear anxiety, that we can’t find the energy to make any choice. Yes, even a preacher can be speechless and have nothing to say. I am reminded of the story of the Congregational pastor in my home town who when he had finished reading the gospel, said to the congregation, “Here ends the reading of the gospel. Think about it.” He promptly sat down, and waited for ten minutes, and then solemnly announced, “Amen.” Yes, we all have our dry periods in life and times of indecision.
St. Paul recognized that, and so he encouraged the church in Philippi to begin by letting their gentleness be known to themselves. Interestingly, the literal meaning of gentleness is “A calmness that comes from knowing things will be okay.” And then he added, and then let this gentleness be known to all. Sometimes we are too close to the players and the events to make a choice, and to let calmness become a part of our days and nights. Anxious worrying keeps us busy and often wide awake.
Worrying, St. Paul warns, never helps a situation get better. Worrying sends a message to yourself and those around us that you are helpless and have nowhere to turn. As a follower of Christ, you can trust that God has everything in his control. That conviction, my friends, is a choice. You only need to believe that God will take care of everything according to his plan, and the temporary bumps and obstacles on the road to life are simply that – temporary. He also instructs the Church at Philippi that they should turn their concerns into prayers of thanksgiving.
Yes, instead of anxiety, you can be thankful for the spouse who complains when dinner is not on time, because s/he is home with me, not with someone else. Instead of being anxious about the teenager who is complaining about doing dishes, be thankful because that means she is at home and not on the streets. Instead of complaining about the mess to clean after a party, be thankful because it means you have been surrounded by friends. Being thankful for the taxes you pay, it means you’re employed. You can even be thankful for the clothes that fit a little too snug, it means I have enough to eat: Or the lady behind you in church who sings off key. It means that you can hear. You can even be thankful for the alarm that goes off in the early morning hours because it means that you’re alive. Thankfulness is a choice.
Of course, it is hard to let go of our anxieties, and our worries. One of the fundamental beliefs in our beliefs is that “success” and “happiness” comes exclusively to those who work hard, and we take that practice into our spiritual life as well. We fret away our night hours trusting that if we work on them, we can give God the counsel that he needs to resolve them. Apparently most of us have forgotten one of Woody Allen’s most poignant lines, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” It is important for us to understand that anxiety can become a terrible habit – such a way of life that it is deeply ingrained and hard to dislodge.
But I was struck by a survey a few years ago of corporate managers regarding their own understanding of the reasons for their success in business. You would think they would have reflected the old creed how hard work and long hours have led to their success, and that they fretted and worried. But, surprisingly, they didn’t. Instead, they candidly confessed that much of their success could be explained only by what they called, “sheer luck.” They just happened to be at the right place at the right time and knew the right people and made a lucky decision.
St. Paul, never questioned hard work and energy, but he also understood there are times in life, when you have to make a choice. It is not based on the good fortune, success and good health that you have enjoyed, but on the promise that God is near and provide even greater treasures.
Now, you may be wondering: So why is “letting go and letting God” such an important choice. Why, you may ask. Because when you let go of your anxieties and fears, you can finally give room in your heart and mind, to let the peace of God which transcends all understanding enter in. That is to say, the peace which God offers, which is something not based on human understanding or rationality can take its rightful place in your troubled heart. It is a divine peace which is based on God’s presence and protection and not on shallow, unpredictable human promises. It is a peace of mind that will “guard” your heart and mind. But my friends, it always begins with a choice between joy or despair in difficult anxious hours.
In his work My Struggle to Become a Person, Hugh Prathner describes his own painful choice. In his personal diary he described his thoughts late one night in a hospital room, sitting beside the bed of his young wife who was critically ill, worrying, waiting, and wondering. He was tempted to choose bitterness and resentment, but he chose joy.
“She may die before morning.” He wrote, “ But I have been with her for four years. Four years. There is no way I could feel cheated if I did not have her for another day. I never deserved her for a single moment. God knows that. And I may die before morning. What I must do now is to accept the justice of death and the injustice of life. I’ve lived a good life, longer than many, better than most. Tony died when he was twenty. I’ve lived 32 years. I could not ask for another day. What did I do to deserve birth? It was purely gift. And I am me, and that is a miracle. I have no right to a single moment. Some are given a single hour, yet I have had 32 years. Few can choose when they will die. I choose to accept death now. As of this moment, I give up my right to life. I give up my right to her life too. But wait! It’s morning! I am being given another day. Another day to live and read and smell and walk in glory. I am alive for another day. And she is alive. It’s a gift! Another gift! Thanks be to God!”
Saint Paul understood that the world will certainly disappoint. The Christian community in Philippi would soon be greeted by the same persecution and suffering. But the apostle also knew that true joy is not dependent upon the happening and trivialities of the world. Christian joy has its source on the continual presence of Christ. Two lovers are always happy when they are together, no matter where they are. As a Christian you can never lose that joy, simply because Christ can never you. That truth, my friends, leads to a joyful life that- in spite of the anxieties and fears of this world- that cannot be taken from you. “Rejoice. The Lord is near.” It is your choice. Amen.
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ, Jesus. Amen.