I want to talk a bit about anxiety. Because some of what I’ve read during this time of COVID-19 from faith leaders has been an extreme push to say “do not be anxious” and even “do not be afraid.” And I won’t deny this is a profound invitation. But the way in which it is commanded and put into practice often has the opposite affect. See if you can relate…. Perhaps you know the passage in Philippians 4:
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
I used to think it was that easy, right. Read the Bible. And stop being anxious. But anxiety is rather like fear – we can’t just will our way out of it. (Recent brain science backs this up – it comes from the part of our brain, the limbic system, which our rational minds have least control over!) What’s worse, it is so easy to turn this into a command or law, without the accompanying admission that we are unable to fulfill the law on our own. In my experience, as soon as we turn “do not be anxious” into a directive from God, what happens is not that we become less anxious, rather we are anxious about why we can’t do what God wants. Or we spin from anxiety into shame, and none of this moves us into the way of Christ.
Instead, consider these familiar words – some of my favourite passages from Scripture:
Luke 12:22-32 NRSV
22 He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Something often overlooked here is the verb used for “consider.” Bible scholar Richard Bauckham points out that the word “consider” here used both for the lilies and the birds is a technical term that a master would use when instructing a young apprentice. It’s a word that connotes a craft or skill that must be learned through careful attentiveness. Watch closely now – how I make this difficult cut of beef, says the butcher. Or watch closely how I carve this careful notch to get the tenon to rest squarely in the mortis, says the master builder.
Jesus is instructing us to pay attention to Creation as though we might learn from a master. And not just Creation – but the seemingly insignificant aspects thereof. What might we learn from the master teacher of wild Camas – which is flowering today and yet will be gone in a few short weeks? Ched Myers suggests we might loosely translate this verse, “Apprentice yourselves to the wildflowers.” Worried about your life like I am – perhaps we need a different teacher?
A close friend was telling me recently how she has stopped clicking on all Covid-related news just because it had overtaken her FaceBook feed. Wow, I said. Has it helped? Well, she added, I have instead committed to click on every piece of poetry that is shared, every beautiful photograph or piece of writing. And do you know what happens? The algorithym has adjusted – she is no longer consumed with anxiety-inducing Covid-news.
Perhaps our soul has a similarly refined algorithym. What we pay attention to ultimately does shape us – this is how God has designed us. And so the way through anxiety and fear isn’t to deny they are part of us, but rather to shift our gaze. To remind ourselves that we belong to a God who has declared our lives secure in Christ – come what may. TO remind ourselves that we live in a world charge with the grandeur of God, in which not a sparrow falls without the Father knowing. To remind ourselves how God our loving Creator is at work in and for Creation. And perhaps in our paying attention, in apprenticing ourselves to these little creatures, we will find our internal algorithym slowly adjusted – from fear to faith. Drawing us to the heart of God.
So my prayer for you this day is for you to pay attention as though your life depended upon it. Because, if we take the words of Jesus seriously, they do.
God come to us in weakness, not in strength. In failure not in success. And reveal you fullness in the way of the Cross. Meet us in our worry, our fear, our anxiety, all that troubles us. Our failures to manage this difficult time, what we have done, left undone, We confess it all to you, O master healer make us whole. Send your spirit to fill us afresh and enlighten the eyes of our heart, that we may see you. And seek your kingdom, even now, even today. In the name of God, source of all being, eternal word, and holy spirit, Amen.