Friday, 25 February 2011

Second Sunday Before Lent: worry...

Romans 8:18-25
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Matthew 6:25-34
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

At last spring seems to be on its way. I think everyone would acknowledge that we’ve had a difficult winter. It’s been colder than many of us can remember, and it’s taken its toll on the community. All of the clergy and local funeral directors have sadly had to cope with more deaths than we’ve had in this season for a long time, and I find that to provide me with some sobering thoughts.

One of the tasks that I have therefore had to do rather a lot more of over these last few months has been giving tributes at funerals. I believe that the main task of a funeral address is to begin the part of the grieving process that depends on our memories of the person.

The addresses that I give usually therefore carry a number of stories which requires listening carefully to both what’s being said, and what is meant. There is a need to capture something of the best parts of a person, but we don’t always get this right. There is a story of a vicar who went to visit a grieving family and, since he’d never met the person who had died, began by asking them about him.

“Well”, they said, “he was a miserable old so-and-so really”. They went on to paint a not terribly complimentary picture of the deceased. This particular vicar rather took them at their word and he began his funeral address by saying, “Well, as you all know, he was a miserable old so-and-so.” Perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising that it really rather backfired on him because, whatever we think about someone when they’re alive, once they’ve gone what we really want is to remember their best parts.

But what if... What if all of our eulogies had to be absolutely honest? What if that vicar’s model of beginning by saying how miserable the deceased was because it was the truth became the norm? What would actually be said about us? So that got me to thinking about this and what mine would say, and I’m willing to bet that there is one line that pretty much everyone of us would also have.

Mine might say something like:
“He ran around a lot, always looking busy and trying to look like he at least had some inkling of what he was doing, but he might have achieved more if he wasn’t so worried about what people thought of him or whether he was going to get everything done. He would certainly have been a much happier person and far easier to live with if he could only have seen each day for its merits rather than being so worried about what was going to happen six months down the line. He never really learnt to enjoy each day.”

Have you ever wondered what your eulogies might say? I bet that for most of us there would be a line there similar to mine, ‘If only he or she had stopped worrying, they would have enjoyed life so much more.’

I believe that one of the biggest problems facing us as Christians is worrying. It saps our energy, keeps us up all night, and has the potential to make us very ill. Anxiety can lead to long term treatment for depression and the potential for drug or alcohol abuse when it gets out of hand,
but even just what we might think of as ordinary low-level worrying reduces our ability to enjoy life.

So why then do we actually worry? I suspect that there is a very good reason why worry evolved in the first place. It seems to me that, if worry remains as controlled concern, it is a way of turning possible events over in our minds until we find a solution to what looks to be a potential problem. It may well originally have been a form of problem solving.

Some of you may have had that experience of going to bed with a problem, sleeping on it (not worrying about it) and waking up with the solution. Our unconscious mind has this remarkable ability to work away at a problem when we’re not aware of it, and then feed us the answer when it’s figured it out. This is a perfectly natural human gift and a way of making decisions. But worrying is not helpful and I think there are three reasons why.

Firstly, worrying paralyses us. When we can see a problem coming, if we worry about it, absolutely nothing is achieved. Worry is a symptom of our psychological systems not working like they’re supposed to. It’s meant to be that a problem presents itself, you prayerfully look at it from all the available perspectives, you find the best solution available, possibly by sleeping on it, and then you act on it. Either the problem is solved or it isn’t.

But worrying persistently impedes that process. Instead of finding a solution we go into this spiralling loop that drives us ever deeper into despair because instead of looking at just the original problem, we start imagining all sorts of new scenarios that need yet more possible solutions which conjure up new problems that set us off on a new train of worry. It’s like a negative feedback loop that stops us in our tracks.

A few months ago it became apparent that someone, probably the American secret services, planted a computer virus in the Iranian nuclear facilities. In order to enrich uranium for potential weapons use they have to centrifuge it at ultra-high speed. The computer virus told the centrifuges to accelerate, to just keep speeding up, faster and faster, until they destroyed themselves by spinning at rates way above their design spec.

That’s a good metaphor for what worry does to us. We psychologically spin faster and faster, completely paralysed, until we collapse. Worry makes us exceed our design specifications. So that’s the first reason why worry is bad for us, because it paralyses us, and ultimately it breaks us.

The second reason is a little darker. Worrying is a symptom of us wanting to be in control. Why is it that we get into these mental causal loops that paralyse us? It’s because we’re imagining every possible scenario in order to maximise the possibility of bringing about our own desired outcome. We’re probably being selfish.

In other words we desire that our own will is what is done, so we examine all the alternatives so that we can figure out what actions we need to do to maximise the potential for getting our own way. Need I remind you that one of the prayers Jesus taught us includes the words addressed to God, ‘Your will be done...’ So as well as paralysing us, worry is symptomatic of us wanting to wrest control away from God, which leads to the third problem with worry.

Worrying is a sign that we are not trusting God. Now I know and firmly believe that we live in a freewill universe. I know that things can go wrong because God does not treat us like robots and the universe is not a wind-up toy, it’s a place into which chance and causation are intimately interwoven.

That means that there is space for joy and sorrow because you need real freedom for there to be real love that chooses to respond to God rather than love that has no choice because it’s programmed in. We can’t alter what happens by worrying about it, and the very act of persistent worrying suggests that we don’t trust God to bring about the best outcome possible given a series of events in our lives.

So worry paralyses us, it’s symptomatic of us wanting to take control from God and it indicates that our prayer lives are not deep enough to allow us to believe that God is with us and that we can trust him.

I think that’s why worrying is such a target for Jesus. Have you ever wondered about how happy he himself might have been? He’s often referred to as a man of sorrows, but is that altogether fair? He plainly knew that he was going to die for his people at some point, yet it didn’t exactly seem to paralyse him and stop him from eating and drinking and having a good time, something that the religious authorities criticised him for.

So we can only assume that the reason worrying became such a target is because he didn’t worry, but he could see how life-denying worry is. Don’t forget that in John’s Gospel Jesus said, ‘I came that they should have life, and have it in all its fullness.’ Jesus is wanting to set us free from worrying because when we stop worrying we begin to live again.

And this is also true for us as a church, as we consider our work over the last twelve months and look to what will happen in 2011. I am not for a moment saying that we shouldn’t plan. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t be financially concerned by the way we still have to rely on random donations and legacies in order to make ends meet because we’re not giving sacrificially enough to actually run the church.

But there’s no point in worrying about it. Instead we find the antidote in the epistle where St. Paul writes, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

So I can tell you that everyone needs to consider whether they can increase their giving, but you either will or you won’t. If you don’t we’ll have to do less, but I hope you will increase your giving. Likewise, and more importantly, I can go on telling you that we all need to be more committed in prayer to our mission as a church, so that we grow in discipleship and can do a better job of meeting the needs of the people in our community.

You will either listen to me and engage more deeply with God and we will grow as God honours our prayers, or you won’t and we’ll shrivel. So I won’t worry, but I will pray, and I will hope that you will all spend more and more time in prayer as well. Growing in our relationships with God will open the way for us to grow as Christians and grow as a church.

And there’s no point in us worrying about the future of our church. We will either sustain our mission by working and praying, trusting God and growing, or we won’t. But I will hope that this church becomes a steadily brighter beacon shining in this place. Worry paralyses us but hope motivates us. Hope is the answer. So how do we let go of worry?

Well let me finish with some words from Mary Crowley, “Every evening I turn my worries over to God. He's going to be up all night anyway.”

1 comment:

  1. A seriously good reminder and exposition of waht Jesus was saying :)