Anxiety - Gill Persike
This is a sermon I preached a few weeks ago, in those golden days before Coronavirus hit this country. But I sense that the content may have particular resonance right now – so here (adapted just a tiny bit) is my sermon on “Anxiety”, based on Matthew 6.25-34
The beautiful gospel passage we’ve just heard has a particular human experience right at its heart – the experience of worry, or anxiety. This is something I know about all too well myself, from personal experience. Recent conversations have alerted me to the fact that it’s a big issue for many of you, too – and anxiety is of course, in these times of COVID-19, a huge issue in our community, our country, our world currently – so we going to focus in on anxiety today. I’ll start with a couple of general observations, and then we’ll take a look at some scripture.
The first thing we need to understand is that we do not all start on a level playing field when it comes to worry. If you imagine a sliding scale of anxiety, a few of us are placed by nature (for reasons which the scientists are just beginning to understand) at the extreme calm end of the scale – able easily to ride out crises and disasters with very little worry or fear. But the starting point for perhaps more of us is at the opposite end of this scale – some of us are calibrated to experience a high level of anxiety or even fear in response to just the everyday things of normal life (let alone the Coronavirus). It’s hard, in both directions actually, for people at one end of this scale to imagine what life must feel like for people at the other end. And you probably know roughly where you are in this, though our anxiety levels do of course vary over the weeks and years.
And the second thing I want to highlight is this : that Christianity has not always been very understanding of anxiety, and there are still, sadly, some traditions, some churches, which regard anxiety as a sin. The thinking goes like this: if you feel anxious, you should pray longer and harder, and if it doesn’t improve fairly rapidly, this is indicative of a sinful lack of faith. I’ve known people myself who have been criticised, ostracised and eventually pushed out of their church because they’re struggling with anxiety. Not here, not in this church. But I find the same ruthless attitude actually within myself, in my own judgements of myself. There have been times when I’ve judged myself defective as a Christian, and not fit for ministry, because I’ve been anxious. This is sad, and actually ungodly, I think, to add guilt and self-condemnation to the already painful experience of anxiety. Don’t do it to yourself, or to anyone else. No, we should understand that God is compassionately on our side in fighting against the curse of fear.
So let’s see how God helps us in scripture. The Bible resounds again and again with that great strengthening cry: “Fear not!” God says it directly to Abram and Hagar and Joshua; God says it to the people via Moses and Isaiah and Joel and the psalmists; angels say it Joseph and Mary and the shepherds; Jesus says it to . . . well, loads of people! I could go on – you get the idea. God knows that humanity is prone to fear and anxiety, and God cares about that, as She does about every form of human suffering. Now, some people hear the repeated refrain of “Do not worry” in today’s gospel as a form of command, an injunction against materialism –just stop worrying about clothing and food and so forth! And it is a command, of course - but it’s also a loving refrain, and deeply tender. This is Jesus wanting to help people who are suffering.
“Look at the birds of the air” he says; “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them”. Now, there’s real thought here, a real idea for us to take on board, about God’s provision for us. But there’s something else as well, something perhaps even more powerful than ideas - there’s beauty. When I sink into my own personal slough of panic and palpitations, few things actually help me so much as the birds, the sight of the birds, soaring in the sky outside my back bedroom window. God shows me freedom in those birds, they aren’t care-worn; they simply trust in the air, the updrafts and breezes and gales, and they are sustained by God in thin air. And I don’t need to think pious thoughts or theological thoughts as I watch them, indeed thinking is positively unhelpful; I just need to watch them, and God calms me through them. So, my first piece of semi-scriptural advice – consider the birds outside your window, or remember the sight of a dog running along the beach, or the sound of a baby giggling – these things do God’s work by soothing us.
And then there’s the power of words themselves. Many of us have our favourite calming verses from scripture, but do we use them wholeheartedly enough? I wake up some mornings assailed as soon as I come to consciousness by a stubborn soundtrack of anxious thoughts racing through my brain. What on earth can stop that? Different words can, words like these, from the first letter of Peter “Cast all your anxiety on God, because he cares for you”. Now, a bit of discipline is needed here, because you need to say these words constantly to yourself, perhaps even out loud when you can, a loving refrain running through your whole day. But again, thinking is positively unhelpful – don’t think pious thoughts about the words, don’t even try to believe them! (Believing can be well nigh impossible when you’re very low.) Just say the words, resolutely, and they will, by God’s grace, sink not just into your brain, but deeper, into your heart and soul. So, my second piece of advice - learn verses from scripture by heart, and use them, hang on to them as a child hangs on to its mother’s hand.
Our gospel passage ends like this: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today”. Don’t worry about tomorrow? – this may induce a hollow laugh in anybody afflicted with anxiety – easier said than done. I myself have grappled with these particular words, long and hard – and this is where I’ve got so far, for what it’s worth. Just identify what I can do, right now, to prepare for tomorrow, or next week, or next year, and do that thing, right now – don’t procrastinate. And then, turn your attention resolutely away from next year, or tomorrow, or this afternoon, even - and live now. And the thing you discover when you succeed in doing this is that, at this very moment, there isn’t a tiger in the room about to attack you, a tiger to be scared of – there is simply . . . now . . . and now . . . and now. Just drink that cup of tea, or go for your once-daily walk, or do the washing-up, fully in touch with what you’re doing now – because this is the moment the Lord has made; we can feel safe in it, indeed, by God’s infinite grace, we can even rejoice and be glad in it. The sacrament of the present moment.
If your anxiety is out of control, do try to speak to friends and family about it; sometimes we need the help which other people can give us. But as I hope I’ve suggested, our faith is also healing in this regard. Consider the birds; hang on to the words, and live now. The peace of God isn’t somewhere else – it’s NOW.