Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News in an Age of Anxiety” (Philippians 4:6-7)
December 16, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Thirty years ago there was popular song that became the first acapella song ever to reach number one on the Billboard charts, a song that won a Grammy for Song of the Year, a combination of reggae and jazz by vocalist Bobby McFerrin entitled “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” McFerrin was redundantly clear in this song:
Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note
Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy
Don’t worry, be happy now
(From his 1988 album Simple Pleasures)
I was a sophomore in college when this song was a hit. During finals week my classmates and I would sing it on the way to exams in an attempt to alleviate our anxiety, “Don’t worry, be happy!” But alas, in the throes of my three-hour long Quantitative Analysis final exam that song was no help at all.
We currently live in a time of great cultural anxiety—anxiety about guns, anxiety about politics, anxiety about the stock market, anxiety about social media, anxiety about health, anxiety about the environment, anxiety about family issues, on and on it goes. During the holiday season such anxieties are often magnified.
Such anxiety can lead to nervousness, insomnia, tension, increased blood pressure, and other symptoms. When anxiety reaches a particularly high level it can even trigger occasional, or not so occasional, panic attacks, marked by increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and trembling. And I will be vulnerable and admit that I have had occasional panic attacks. They are not fun, and even songs like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, as catchy as they are, fall short.
Maybe some of you have had anxiety dreams. Some have anxiety dreams about school—not turning in a paper on time or not being able to find the classroom for a final exam. Some have anxiety dreams about sports—standing with a football at the one yard line with a wide open end zone a couple steps away but unable to move forward as defenders sprint toward you, or you’re a goalie in a soccer match and the ball is rolling in slow motion toward the goal but you cannot reach it.
As a priest I am prone to occasional anxiety dreams that are quite bizarre. Usually they involve running late for a service, unable to find my vestments, unable to find my sermon notes, unable to find the sanctuary. I keep returning to my office to get my Book of Common Prayer and accidentally grab a volume of Far Side cartoons or Shakespeare plays, and then scramble back to office yet again. When I finally arrive at the sanctuary I am too late. Everyone has gone home except for a few ushers who berate me about being late—“Where have you been?”
Then I notice that the sanctuary is flooded and there are acolytes floating on rafts while carrying torches and the gospel book and asking me, “Where is everybody?” This is always capped off with the bishop in his full regalia looking annoyed and slowly shaking his head in disapproval. Many of you have anxiety dreams too, maybe not as bizarre as mine, but equally distressing. And unfortunately there are seasons when we awake to be reminded that the real life challenges in our lives that cause real life anxiety are not dreams at all.
Last year The New York Times Magazine published an article entitled “America’s New Anxiety Disorder” which describes our collective cultural anxiety this way:
There’s a bleakness in the atmosphere, and a consensus on what to call it: “anxiety.” For the past decade or so American anxiety was usually described as either a mental health issue or a generational style. Psychologically, we were steadily becoming more apprehensive than ever, with—according to the National Institute of Mental Heath—18 percent of people experiencing actual anxiety disorders in any given year. Generationally, the whole social attitude of younger adults changed… Panicked strivers have replaced sullen slackers as the caricatures of the moment, and Xanax has eclipsed Prozac as the emblem of the national mood (Nitsuh Abebe, April 18, 2017).
While this current cultural anxiety is pronounced, it is not a new phenomenon. Seventy years ago W. H. Auden entitled in his 1948 Pulitzer Prize winning poem “The Age of Anxiety.” Each age in its own way is an age of anxiety.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians contains good news for our age of anxiety:
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by 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 your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).
When Paul wrote these words he was imprisoned in Rome, suffering for the gospel. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians Paul vulnerably revealed that even he was not immune to anxiety: “And, besides other things, I am under pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak?” (2 Corinthians 11:28-29). And yet even though Paul was honest about his struggles with anxiety he still knew the best way to address it: pray—ask God for help—“by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And what happens when we do that? God gives us peace—“the peace of God which surpasses understanding”—to guard our hearts and minds.
Broadly speaking, all of Paul’s thirteen New Testament letters are roughly divided into two parts: what God has done for us and what we are called to do in response. Earlier in his Letter to the Philippians Paul wrote that the same God who began a work in our lives will finish it (1:6), that Jesus died for us on the cross and was raised again (2:8-9), that Jesus will come again to complete his work of salvation (3:20-21). In response to all God has already done, is doing, and will do, we are called to deal with our anxiety by prayer, by asking this same God for help.
When I was a junior in high school a girl whom I had been dating for a long time in high school terms, six whole weeks, broke up with me via a note written to me by a friend of hers—perhaps the equivalent of being “dumped” in a text today. Moreover, this was three days before taking the dreaded SAT exam, which as a teacher told me, was no reason to stress because the SAT only impacted where I may go to college and therefore perhaps where I may meet my future spouse and therefore whether and what kind of kids I may have and what career I may pursue and where I may end up living the rest of my life…but no reason to stress.
That evening a youth minister at our church pointed out today’s passage to me, and encouraged me to take my anxiety to the Lord in prayer. I did, and it helped, but on the way to take the SAT I made the mistake of stopping by 7-Eleven for a Big Gulp Mountain Dew so when the test administrator later refused to let me go to the restroom I began wrestling with a different kind of anxiety…oh well.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, another age of anxiety in an America on the cusp of the Civil Way, a hymn was written by Joseph Scriven that has gone on to become a beloved hymn, and one I wish were included in our hymnal, a hymn that beautifully describes what Paul writes in today’s passage:
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer
Have we trials and temptations, is there trouble anywhere
We should never be discouraged, take it to the Lord in prayer
Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share
Jesus knows our every weakness, take it to the Lord in prayer
The cynical may dismiss this powerful hymn as a simple minded prescription or an emotional Band-Aid, but it actually is a reminder of the best thing to do with anxiety—take it to the Lord in prayer—as scripture also tells us, to “cast all your anxiety on (God) because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
The greatest theologian of the twentieth century was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, whose magnum opus entitled Church Dogmatics, is over six million words long and took him over thirty years to write. He wrote during the years of the Third Reich, World War II, and the Cold War, all ages of intense collective anxiety. In a smaller book called Dogmatics in Outline Barth wrote:
The greatest hindrance to faith is again and again is the anxiety and pride of our human hearts. We would rather not live by grace. Something within us energetically rebels against it. We do not wish to receive grace…this swing to and fro between pride and anxiety is man’s life. Faith bursts through them both… We may hold entirely to God’s Word (20-21).
The reason “we may hold entirely to God’s Word” is because God is already holding us.
In my office there are several pieces of furniture—two desks, five chairs, several bookshelves, an antique table—but the most important piece of furniture in my office is a prayer desk. While some days I forget, most days I spend some time kneeling at that prayer desk, taking the things that cause anxiety in my life to the Lord in prayer. And the most common prayer I pray is actually only one word long, “Help”—asking God to help, to do what I can’t do, to solve what I can’t solve, to give me wisdom and clarity where I need it—whether it’s for my own life and family, or for the myriad and sundry aspects of church life.
And often, what Paul describes as “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding” indeed begins to guard my heart and mind anew. Somehow God reassures me that ultimately he will take care of it, whatever that “it” may be. And I drink another cup of coffee from a mug that a friend at Christ Church gave me that says, “I got this—God.”
The “peace of God which passes all understanding” is that even though on the surface there is no change at all in any of the things causing you anxiety, you have this sense that God has indeed got it, that it is going to be okay.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus faced anxiety we could never imagine, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” As the horrors of Good Friday loomed ever nearer scripture tells us, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:42, 44). And yet as he drew his final breath on the cross, Jesus cast all his cares on his Heavenly Father, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). And the Risen Jesus, the Prince of Peace, offers you peace today, “peace which passes all understanding” to guard your heart and mind—real grace for the real anxiety in your real life.
The gospel is good news in an age of anxiety, good news for those who need more than “Don’t worry, be happy.” Jesus knows your every weakness, take it to the Lord in prayer, because God’s word to you today is…“I got this.”