Monday, December 14, 2009

anxiety to peace (philippians 4. 4-7)

Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again, I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Joy is a prominent theme in Philippians. The word joy or rejoice occurs twelve times in this brief letter. The persistence of joy is somewhat remarkable, given the circumstances: Paul is writing from a prison cell, there are realities within the church that disturb him----there is envy and rivalry among preachers of the gospel (can you imagine?), there is even a specific directive to two women in the Philippian church to “get along”, to “agree in the Lord”.

The deadly sin of pride and the human experience of conflict were present in the earliest churches. Even more remarkable is the fact that the Philippian church was one of the healthier congregations in the first century, compared to the church at Corinth, which was a mess. A particular sign of this health was a gift they had sent to Paul, and the primary occasion of the letter is to say thank you.

Amidst all of this, Paul rejoices, and commands his readers, us to rejoice. If you read Philippians closely, and I encourage you to do this, the focus on joy is rather amazing: joy in the face of impending death (chapter one); joy in the midst of suffering (chapter two); joy in the experience of sacrifice and letting go (chapter three); and joy quite apart from external conditions (chapter four). I know what it is to have abundance and I know what it is to be in need, Paul writes. And yet, he says, rejoice.

The great theologian Karl Barth of the last century regarded Joy in Philippians as the defiant nevertheless. One of my favorite cartoons has two monks seated together, dressed in their habits. One says to the other, “Apart from piles, varicose veins, a hernia and leprosy, God’s been very good to me”.

Joy in Philippians, joy in the Christian life is often a defiant “nevertheless”. The joy, he insists, is “in the Lord”, who is near. This is the promise that keeps us going, the Advent promise of a joy to the world, the vision of a future where we will lift high the candles in the midst of the present darkness.

Rejoice in the Lord always, always…a strong statement. Is this possible? It helps to distinguish joy from happiness. Happiness is a human pursuit; joy is a divine gift. William Sloane Coffin, the great preacher at the Riverside Church insisted that “Joy is not the denial of happiness but its foundation”. Joy is a deeper reality, less tied to external circumstances. Thus Paul can rejoice, even in prison. Is he happy? Most likely not. Is he joyful? Yes.

Rejoice in the Lord always….let your gentleness be known to everyone, the Lord is near. The Greek word for gentleness is a complex one: it can mean patience, moderation, steadiness. It refers to qualities of being relaxed and open. It has about it a sense of being with people, working with them, seeing life through their eyes, walking in their shoes. And our relationships with each other are always bound together with our connection to the God who is with us, the promise of Emmanuel, the Word becoming flesh.

And then, Paul’s spiritual guidance to the Philippians and to us:

Have no anxiety about anything,
But in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
Let your requests be made known to God.

Have no anxiety about anything…Paul is reflecting here on the destructiveness of anxiety, a word that is relevant to most every one of us. It echoes a teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not be anxious about your life…”. What is anxiety? For many it is the free-floating sense that conditions that are beyond our comprehension that we are not in control. The sources of anxiety might be the family we grew up in, the uncertainty of our financial circumstances, or fears about what is happening or might happen to our children or our parents. Anxiety is real. And yet, thanks to technology, we have become a chronically-anxious nation---think of cable news, financial news, medical and terrorism alerts. There is a low level but almost universal chronic anxiety, and to breathe the air is to experience it.

So what is the scripture saying---have no anxiety about anything? I don’t think Paul is urging us to live in denial, to bury our heads in the sand. He is certainly not suggesting that we ignore the needs of others, which we display a lack of compassion.

I think he is talking about the destructiveness of anxiety. One of the most helpful persons along the way to me in understanding anxiety was a rabbi named Ed Friedman, who lived and taught in the Washington, D.C. area. Friedman talked about anxiety on a continuum. We all carry some of this inside of us, to a greater or lesser degree. Many of us get stuck in a kind of anxiety, and we can we become overwhelmed by it. He insisted that “our capacity to remain connected, without cut-off relationships, makes us less anxious”. And to take it one step farther, “our capacity to avoid over functioning---not taking responsibility for what is beyond our control---reduces our anxiety and leads to our healing”.

How do we live without anxiety? In everything by prayer and supplication-- or petitions--with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. We establish a connection. We are silent before God, we speak honestly with God about what we need, we give thanks to God.

This is the spiritual life, the inner life---silence, petition, gratitude. What do I need? I can only answer that question when I have spent some time in reflection. For what am I grateful? I can only answer that question when I have spent some time in reflection. To ask God is to believe in an unseen power who provides in the future. To give thanks to God is to believe in an unseen power who has provided in the past. Our over functioning is often the symptom of a deeper question, in its extreme a practical atheism---do we really believe in a God who is real, do we trust in a God who intervenes?

In prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
Let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

In this brief passage there is a progression. How do we move from anxiety to peace? In the words of the hymn, we “take it to the Lord in prayer”. This is a lifelong process; it is, in the words of last week’s sermon, “the slow work of God”. The God who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it. This is a gift from God, but one that also requires our participation; “Let there be peace on earth”, another hymn says it well, “and let it begin with me”.

How do we make peace with who we are and where we are in this life? This was the core issue for Paul. It is the gift of God, but one that requires our participation. Paul writing later in Philippians 2. 12-13:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
For God is at work in you, to will and to act for his good purpose.

The agenda---the movement from anxiety to peace--- is our work…but God is at work in us.

A friend shared this experience with me recently: a woman had an advanced diagnosis of cancer with months to live. She was facing death with an increasing serenity, but one day a friend checked in on her and found her to be unusually distressed and anxious. A diamond ring of hers was missing, and she feared the housekeeper might have stolen it.

The friend, who was a spiritual director to her, asked her to think about four questions:

1. Do you realize you will have to let go of it at some point, perhaps quite soon?
2. How much more time do you need before you will be willing to let it go?
3. Will you become less when you let go of it?
4. Has who you are been diminished by the loss?

Regarding anxiety and peace, it is good to investigate our relationship to the world of things, particularly the things we “possess”.

The woman grew more ill and began to give more things away, and some of these gifts were to the woman she thought might have stolen her ring. Over time she became more and more filled with joy. “Now I understand something Jesus said that never made much sense to me before”, she reflected. “If someone takes your shirt, let them have your coat as well”.

This is the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. It is letting go of something, and maybe what we let go of is that which makes us most anxious---a compulsion to perfectionism, an anger or a resentment, an envy or a jealousy---and there are clues that these were struggles in the life of the Apostle Paul himself---we let go of something to make a place for the gifts of God: hope, peace, joy. In the words of the carol, “the dear Christ enters in”.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul intentionally chooses a military word here—will “guard” your hearts and minds”. We imagine the apostle, in a prison cell, being watched by a guard, and seeing this as a parable---in the same way faith allows us to withstand pressures that are external to us, it secures us.

To experience the peace that surpasses all understanding is to know that hope is more than optimism, peace more than getting along, joy more than pleasure. Indeed, hope may be present in despair, peace in conflict, and joy amidst great suffering.

The persistence of joy bears witness to the power of the gospel, which is finally our path from anxiety to peace. At a practical level this is our capacity to remain connected to each other and to God---

We are connected to a worshipping community that sends a different message than the chronically anxious chorus of our culture.

We are connected to a body of Christ that, at its best, is a community of grace and forgiveness.

But we are also and ultimately connected to the One who is always with us and for us--- Jesus, who is himself the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.

"O come, thou Dayspring,
come and cheer our spirits by thy justice here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And deaths dark shadows put to flight
Rejoice, rejoice,
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel."

Sources: Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation. The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin, Volume I. Karl Barth, Epistle to the Philippians. The United Methodist Hymnal. Thanks to Leighton Ford an additional insight into this sermon.


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