19th February 2017 morning

Matthew 6:25-end

by Revd Kate Tuckett

In my experience there are very few people in life who will give very honest feedback. Some years ago I had some feedback that came straight to the point that the person in question thought I had some issues around anxiety. And it was feedback that was hard for me to hear. I could recognise in myself that I was prone to being a bit of a worrier, to getting a bit bogged down in detail, to sometimes needing to step back and seeing the wood for the trees. But these were all things I could tell myself were about being conscientious, hard-working, caring about what I did. This feedback was not expressed in positive terms, but ten years later I can say that I’m honestly very grateful for it, because it made me recognise and name and go on to seek some help for a personality trait which did not encourage my best self to flourish. It’s still something I’m aware I struggle with. Perhaps some of you do too.

Jesus said, ‘do not worry about your life.’ It’s very easy for Jesus, we might think. He didn’t have a mortgage to pay, or a stressful job to do, or office hours to keep, or meals to cook, or children or elderly parents to look after. He didn’t seem to have been required to keep to any kind of schedule or to earn a living, or to be beset by the million and one stresses of modern-day life.

I suspect that my story of my own little struggle with anxiety is not unique. The age we live in has been described as the age of anxiety. Our world is changing around us very quickly, and our worldview seems to be redefined every few months. Our age of ‘post-truth’ means that we no longer know where our foundations are. And that’s without the unrelenting barrage of information overload that we receive from social media and from the technologisation of our society. A friend visited me in London recently and said how exhausting it is to go on the escalators on the tube when there’s video all around you. And I believe all this increases our propensity to be anxious.

But I believe as well that anxiety isn’t always about what’s going on outside. When we feel anxious, there will always be something to worry about. Anxiety can be a spiritual state.

There’s an aphorism that I have myself sometimes quoted that the opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty. And that may be true to a point. But spiritual writer Richard Rohr would suggest that the opposite of faith is not doubt, because faith is not localised primarily in the mind[1]. The opposite of faith, according to this passage, and to a number of Jesus’ other statements, is anxiety. Faith is being able to trust that God is there, God is good, God is on your side.

So much of Jesus’ teaching is about freeing ourselves from the things that bind us, and helping people to be freed from the social prejudices and attitudes that kept them bound. And I think anxiety is a very real contender in what limits and binds us.

If you are anxious, you’re trying to do it all yourself. For those of us who are sometimes anxious, we need to control, and that may be a good test of the quality of our faith. And I should add that the quality of my own faith is, at times, very poor. People of faith don’t have to control everything, nor do they have to change things or people. In the words of the famous prayer, they have the wisdom to know the difference. It’s a big ask. Perhaps none of us will get there in this lifetime.

‘Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on God’s saving justice, and all these other things will be given to you as well. Do not worry about tomorrow, tomorrow can take care of itself.’ One of the most frequent commands in the Bible is ‘Do not be afraid’. I believe that one of the things that a Christian life can help us to do is to hold the realities of the world, with all the anxieties these bring us, with poise; to hold them calmly and without fear. Because if we are too quick to expel what makes us anxious we can take on a quick and clear sense of who we are, but this can be defined by what we are against, who we hate, who else is wrong, rather than what we believe in and who we love . And that can drown the place within us all that is open to grace, to beauty, to saying yes to God’s love.

The age that we live in is the first period of history in which a large number of people have been allowed to take their lives and identities seriously. It is a wonderful thing that we have equal rights for education, for health, for possibility, that people are encouraged to broaden their horizons of who and what they can become. And I say this cautiously, because I don’t want it to be misinterpreted, but I wonder if this comes at a cost. Because if my small story -- my immediate life, my possessions, my career, my relationships, my not-very-interesting hopes and dreams and longings and desires—if this is all there is, I am bound to be anxious, because I have to do all I can to protect that. But if we can move beyond our own small stories, we are saved from the smallness and the illusions of ourselves. The story of God that is opened up to us in Jesus saves us from ourselves that are always going to be insecure and anxious and scrabbling around for significance. If my story is all I have I will need to hold it close and protect it at all costs. My little self is fragile and unprotected and constantly striving. It will inevitably be anxious[2].

To open ourselves up to this bigger story might mean letting go – perhaps letting go of some material stuff, but perhaps letting go of other stuff – the need to the right, to be liked, to be successful, to be good, to make our mark, to be in control.

When I feel anxious, I know that I have in some way misplaced the centre of my life. I have lost touch with the divine source of wellbeing and goodness that lies at the heart of my being and offers refreshment and life no matter what the circumstances of my life may be. It is for me a great temptation.

The solution to anxiety is not getting the circumstances of my life under control, because in my experience, when I lose sight of a bigger story than me, my life contracts rather than expands. Worrying about whether I’ve locked the front door may become as pressingly urgent as worrying about the urgent thing I haven’t done at work; reminding myself that I am not Donald Trump in terms of world influence may seem totally irrelevant.

I read an article[3] recently about the art of looking up. It talked about how when we look up at the vast reach of the sky above, in all its different daily permutations, we are reminded that the world keeps on turning, and that no crisis, however difficult, is permanent. My anxieties are only the tiniest rusty cog in a much bigger, more beautiful machine.

And do you know what? It works. The answer to anxiety so often lies in focusing my attention on that which is greater than those things about which I feel anxious. Learning to rest and trust in the faithfulness of God, the anxious knots of our own lives begin to untangle and it begins to be possible to meet each day not with fear and uncertainty, but openness and grace.

Because there is nothing that can ever overwhelm the strong and abiding reality of God’s story. Life is abundant and the invitation is always one of strength, peace, goodness and mercy. I do not need to grasp and hold on to my pathetic ability to convince myself that I am able to control the circumstances of my life. I do not need to keep my barriers up in a futile attempt to protect my own little story because that is not the end of God’s story. ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all things will be given to you as well.’

I’m finishing with a poem from Mary Oliver, who expresses some of this a lot more beautifully than I can.

‘I worried’

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well, hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning, and sang.

[1] Rohr, R., Jesus’ Plan for a New World (Fransiscan Media), p118

[2] See Rohr, R. (2002), Hope against Darkness, Cincinatti: St Anthony Messenger Press

[3] https://www.the-pool.com/arts-culture/books/2017/2/elizabeth-day-on-the-joy-of-nature-writing