Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Saint Paul's Remedies for Anxiety

Philippians 4:1-9

What do you worry about? I’m sure if I took a survey of this congregation, no one would have any difficulty answering that question. We all worry and we all feel anxious for the future at times.

Each of us is touched by the ordinary stresses of life. Work, family, bills to pay, errands to run, health concerns, political concerns, religious and spiritual questions…Everything that makes life worthwhile and rewarding can also be a source of anxiety.

While all of us have anxieties and worries, it is a chronic and even debilitating problem for some us. Whether it is by temperament, biology, or upbringing, some of us suffer from various anxiety disorders. In fact it is pretty common and increasingly more so. Recent statistics suggest that 40 million Americans over the age of 18, or roughly 18% of the population suffer from an anxiety disorder. Many of those who suffer receive no treatment at all.  

It is not God’s will that we should overcome or oppressed by anxiety. Although a certain degree of worry is inevitable, he does not wish us to succumb to our anxieties or be defeated by them. For chronic sufferers of anxiety, therapy and medication can help. They are a good thing and should never be stigmatized or dismissed.  The Wisdom of Sirach says, “Give the doctor his due!” and “The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them.”

As Christians we also should gain strength and encouragement from our faith. Saint Paul exhorts those who are anxious, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything!”

He assures us that we are always—even now—under the gentle guidance of our heavenly Father and in the loving presence of Christ through the power of the Spirit. If you could see Jesus walking beside you in your struggles, if you always felt the power of the Holy Spirit, if you had a continual sense of your Father’s watchful gaze and knew that everything he has is yours, wouldn’t you feel you feel less anxious? Yet we walk by faith and not by sight. We don’t always experience these realities in a tangible way but we are asked to trust them by faith.

Paul tells us—he commands us actually—to not be anxious about anything! Now one thing we must not do in response to this commandment is to become anxious about our anxiousness! Some of us worry about our worry. We worry that our worries are some kind indication that our faith is deficient.  The fact is, however, that God does not expect us to free ourselves from anxiety by sheer force of willpower. That is not what Saint Paul is asking us to do here. Instead he gives us practical strategies for combating anxiety on a spiritual level.

Philippians 4 is a treatment plan, and like any treatment plan it is not a magical cure nor should we expect instant and immediate results. It is a plan for the long term. I want to highlight three strategies that Saint Paul believes that we should turn to again and again in our struggle with anxiety.

The first is to rejoice! Saint Paul is emphatic in his commandment, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!”

There is a scene from HBO’s John Adams miniseries that I think of often. Adams faced tremendous challenges in his life. He helped lead the American Revolution for independence, he served the newly formed nation as president during a time of anxiety and uncertainty, he lost his daughter to cancer, and he suffered a strained relationship with his alcoholic son. In the scene he is an old man giving advice to his other son Thomas on an evening stroll. He says, 


“Still, still I am not weary of life. Strangely. I have hope. You take away hope and what remains? What pleasures? I have seen a queen of France with eighteen million livres of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure, added to all the glitter of her jewels, did not impress me as much as that little shrub,” He says pointing with his walking stick to a small white flower in the field. He continues, “Now my mother always said that I never delighted enough in the mundane, but now I find that if I look at even the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way.”

He begins to speak to himself in his revelry, “Rejoice evermore. Rejoice Evermore!” Thomas looks at him puzzled and he snaps back, “It’s a phrase from St. Paul, you fool! REJOICE EVERMORE! I wish that had always been in my heart and on my tongue. I am filled with an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees right here in admiration.”

When you look back on your life in your final days, what do you think you will be more likely to regret? Will you regret that you didn’t spend enough time worrying about the future, what people thought of you…or will you regret that you didn’t take enough time to rejoice in the simple pleasures of life?

Neither Saint Paul nor John Adams were strangers to anxiety; they both knew great sorrow and loss, and yet their advice to us is to “Rejoice Evermore!”

The second strategy Saint Paul offers for dealing with anxiety is to in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.

It goes without saying that if we wish to have a more abiding faith in God’s presence with us, that we need to grow and deepen in our prayer life. Do we pour out our grief and care to God in prayer? Are we ever, like John Adams, filled with the irresistible urge to fall on our knees in admiration, or are we contented to have a merely formal relationship with him? We should regularly open our hearts to God like we would a trusted friend or a wise father.

Why should we make our request known to God? Doesn’t he know what we need already? Yes, of course he does, but our supplications are more for our own sake rather than God’s. He wants to bring our concerns to him, and in so doing to trust them to his provision and care. He wants to carry our burdens. If I take a heavy load from my back and hand it to another, it means I am no longer carrying it! I have entrusted it to the strength of another. That is what God wants us to do with our worries and anxieties. He wants us to place them in his hands.

The third strategy for dealing with anxiety that Saint Paul offers us is about thinking about what we think about,   

"whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

In recent years, many people have found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helpful in combating anxiety. The goal here is to help individuals change unhelpful patterns of thinking, behavior, and self-talk and to replace them with healthier patterns. The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we think and feel.

Saint Paul wasn’t a cognitive psychologist, but some of the strengths of that approach are reflected in his wisdom here. What could be better than to fill our minds with the beauty, the goodness, the love, and perfection of God? Instead of dwelling on what is wrong with us, we should turn instead to one in whose light we are revealed, because in him is our joy and salvation. Yes, we need to honest about our sin and our need for redemption, but we don’t dwell on our wretchedness or guilt but rather on God’s grace and mercy.

Think about these things Saint Paul says, give your cares to God, rejoice evermore, and the peace that surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds from all assaults of anxiety and despair.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What is it?

The name that the Israelites gave to the bread from heaven, the food that God provided, was Manna, which means, “What is it?” Our text says,
In the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

What is it? That is the question I want us to dwell on this morning. The Lord taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” What has he given you? What has the Lord provided? It is so easy to lose sight of all the ways God has been faithful to us. It is so much easier to focus on what we don’t have and to dwell on our struggles.

When God’s people were wandering in the wilderness they all began to grumble and complain. They actually wished that they were dead. They began to look back longingly on their slavery in Egypt. At least there they had food!
They forgot how when they were groaning under the unbearable weight of their oppression in Egypt, God delivered them and led them out with a mighty outstretched hand. He showed them signs and wonders. He split the Red Sea so that they walked through on dry ground. But what had he done for them lately?

The spiritual discipline of counting our blessings is so important. I can sometimes be guilty of catastrophic thinking. When things start to get difficult I assume the worst. I can become anxious and worried about the future. Sometimes in those situations, if I can actually step away from my worries for a moment, it helps to be able to think back on how God has helped me in the past and to take an accounting of what he is doing at the moment. 

I remember how lonely I was at one point in my life. How I thought I would never find someone to love, but then I met April, who for some crazy reason agreed to marry me.

You might laugh at this one. When April and I were first married we lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment. We were so happy to have our own place together. After a year though, I began to feel dissatisfied. Would we ever live in a house? Would I ever make a decent living?

In seminary I worried if I would ever find a job. When I found a great curacy in Cooperstown, I worried that I would never find a job as a rector. I worried that I wouldn’t be happy with the place God sent me.

Now, I consider the gorgeous rectory where my beautiful family lives—much nicer than anyplace I have lived before. I look around at this beautiful, historic, church building that I have the pleasure of serving in. I think about you all—the wonderful congregation here at Saint George’s—and I feel blessed. The Lord has been good to me. The Lord provides. Why should I not trust that he will continue to provide?

The same incident recorded in our reading from Exodus is also described in the book of Psalms. Psalm 78 describes it this way,

For they had no faith in God, *
nor did they put their trust in his saving power.
So he commanded the clouds above *
and opened the doors of heaven.
He rained down manna upon them to eat *
and gave them grain from heaven.
So mortals ate the bread of angels; *
he provided for them food enough.

God was angry and frustrated with his people, so what did he do? He blessed them! He gave them all the food they needed. What is the meaning of this? I think it must be similar to what Saint Paul meant when he said we should show love to those who wrong us, because in so doing we will pour burning coals upon their heads. God’s extravagant generosity is a rebuke to us because it exposes our lack of gratitude. When we consider how generous God has been to us we should feel convicted and resolve to be more faithful. And yet how does the psalm continue?
But they did not stop their craving, though the food was still in their mouths”

Sometimes we are not happy unless what we have is better than what somebody else has. Be honest with yourselves and you will see that it is true!
Take a look at the parable in our Gospel lesson. It is a story about a man who hires some laborers to work in his vineyard. In those days, in that place, for many people, work was extremely hard to come by. They were living day to day. They never knew where their next meal would come from. Crowds of men would gather in the marketplace just hoping someone would offer them a day’s work. These particular men were very fortunate to have been chosen that day. They were completely at the mercy of the men who hired them—no labor unions back then—but fortunately this man agreed to pay them a fair wage.

What happens? He finds some other guys at the end of the day and hires them on too. The thing is, he pays them the same. He pays these guys an entire day’s wage for one hour’s work at the end of the day. This was extremely generous, but it really upsets all the other guys. Suddenly they aren’t so happy about what he gave them. He asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

That is another good question. Are we envious over God’s generosity to other people? God owes us nothing and yet he has given us everything we have. Why not give thanks for what he has provided rather than begrudging his generosity to others?

Sometimes we don’t even know we want something until we see someone else enjoying it. Have you ever seen children at play? They all fight over the same toy! There can be a thousand toys available but they want to have the one that the other kid has. Psychologists have a word for this. They call it mimetic desire. The old fashioned word for it is envy, and we really haven’t out grown it yet.

When I consider how petty I can sometimes be, I am humbled by Saint Paul’s words in our Epistle today. He writes, “To me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”  What more could he possible need? He has Christ! He has the gift of salvation and communion with God in his Lord. He has the ultimate gift that even death cannot separate from him. What treasure in this world can be compared to Christ? In the words of the great hymn,

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,Look full in His wonderful face,And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,  In the light of His glory and grace

What is it? What is it that God has given you? Bread from heaven! Christ has given you his own body and blood, his whole self, body, soul, and divinity. He has rained down blessing upon us more than we deserve. The question we should be asking is not, “What has God done for me lately,” but, “What have I done for God lately? What can I do? What can I give to show my gratitude to him for his extravagant generosity?