Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 11th of Tenth Month, 2020
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Philippians 4:4–9
Good morning, Friends!
Philippians 4:4–9, NRSV: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
I look at my watch. It’s somewhere around 4:30 in the morning. That means I’ve been awake for an hour, maybe an hour and a half. I stare up at the ceiling. It looks the same as it did the last time I looked up, ten, maybe twenty minutes ago? I roll onto my side and close my eyes again. I try to quiet my mind, to push away the thoughts of the things that will compete for my attention in the coming day; and, waiting behind them, the less proximate but still pressing worries: the coronavirus, the upcoming election, injustice in our community and in our nation. I try to push them away, but invariably, these things are still with me.
This seems to happen to me quite a bit lately—it’s happened a couple of times this week. Anxiety is, for me, one of the most powerful spiritual enemies with which I have to struggle. I find that it is a real obstruction in my relationship with God. Being so preoccupied with my own issues gets in the way of communion with the divine; when I am anxious, I find it difficult to pray. Rather than casting my cares on the One who cares for all of us, I end up holding them more and more tightly to myself. And I imagine I’m not alone this. We live in an age of high anxiety...
And anxiety is also an interpersonal obstacle; it can affect our relationships with one another. Like a virus, it can be contagious, spreading from person to person, circling back on itself, building up and up. We can see this in the public sphere quite a bit, and all the more as November approaches. But this pattern can also affect the spirit of a community of faith. This is difficult, because the meeting community, the church, should be the place where we come to share our burdens and worries. We don't want to shut anyone down; one of the great strengths of people of faith is being able to pray together and to extend mutual care one to another. If we couldn't do that, we wouldn't really be members of the the body of Christ. So the challenge is to find a way to share what we are concerned about, without letting those concerns take over.
High anxiety. Both the Old and the New Testaments have plenty of things to say about worry and anxiety. I think of the verse in Isaiah 55 which asks, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2a). The witness of Scripture, in so many places, is to redirect us from the things that cannot feed us or sustain us, and towards God, towards the things that are truly bread, that we can truly rely upon.
This refocusing is part of what the Apostle Paul is trying to do for the church at Philippi in the Scripture passage we heard earlier. Unlike some of his other churches, Paul got along pretty well with the Philippians. He mentions a little later in chapter four that they were the one church that supported him at an earlier time in his ministry. So this is Paul's letter to friends and supporters. The reality of persecution is also present, however. Paul writes from prison, possibly in Rome, possibly elsewhere (1:12–14). He also mentions that the Philippians have their opponents, and that they are joined with him in his struggle of suffering for Christ (1:27–30). So this is also a letter of instruction and encouragement for those in the midst of struggle.
And no doubt these struggles were a source of anxiety for the Philippians. Paul seems to acknowledge this in 4:6, where he says, “Do not worry about anything…” which in other translations is “Be anxious for nothing…” In the face of anxiety, Paul has a number of counsels: the first is, rejoice! He exhorts the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” and this is important enough that it bears repeating: “again I will say, rejoice!” Joy in the midst of struggle is one of the main themes of this letter; Paul uses the verb that means “to rejoice” seven times elsewhere in Philippians, and it is usually an expression of a glad response to God despite the circumstances—despite the falsehood of some teachers, despite his imprisonment, despite his separation from the church, despite the church’s own anxiety.
Paul also counsels prayer and supplication with thanksgiving for the Philippians. Notice that he doesn't just say, “pray,” but he mentions prayer, and supplication with thanksgiving. I don't want to read too much into the particular words he uses here, but I think it is significant that there's more than one kind of prayer mentioned. Most of you can probably think of a number of different kinds of prayer, and there are lots of ideas about how to use these different forms. For example, some folks recommend that when we pray, we begin with praise for God and adoration of God; then we move on to petitions and intercessions, asking God for specific things for others or for ourselves; then we end with thanksgiving. There are other elements that one could add to that formula. But I think the point is not that Paul is trying to prescribe for us the one right way of praying.
Rather than being preoccupied with forms, we might instead pray as much as we can, as often as we can, as best we know how.1 So if praise is a natural expression for you, praise God in everything! If you are liable to turn to intercession when you think of the needs of others, or of yourself, then intercede before God in everything! If thanksgiving is easy for you, then thank God in everything. And if none of these things is natural for you, then find the prayer language that is. And it doesn’t even need to be a language; why make ourselves more anxious than we already are, if we can’t find the words? As Friends, we know that a time of silent and expectant waiting can be the richest part of prayer.
But to return to Paul’s specifics, I think it is significant that he mentions thanksgiving in close proximity to rejoicing, for the two go hand-in-hand. Being thankful for someone or something helps us to realize the joy that person or thing gives us; and when we find joy in something, our hearts cry, “thanks be to God” in response. What’s more, joy and thankfulness can be contagious, in the same way that anxiety and worry can. One of the things I like about our English word “rejoice” is its prefix, “re-”: if we have joy, then we will have more as our joy reinforces that of others—we will “re-joice”.
A third thing towards which Paul exhorts the Philippians is to focus on what is true, what is honorable, what is commendable, etc. Now, it would be pretty easy to reduce this to a superficial kind of “think positive” approach to life, and there is no shortage of people preaching this kind of message—people of faith and people of no particular faith are promoting positive visualizations, affirmations, and the like. This kind of thinking can get self-focused awfully quickly, so that it becomes, “Here's what I'm going to get for myself out of this process of thinking about good things.” But what Paul is encouraging the Philippians to do here is to keep their focus on God—God as the source of what is true, honorable, excellent, and praiseworthy.
When I try to follow Paul’s words here—to dwell on what is true, honorable, and just— what comes to mind most often are not abstract concepts, or things, but people: faithful Friends I have known who have taught me important things of the Spirit, or who have encouraged me with their wisdom, or who simply by their lived example have pointed the way to Christ’s presence in our midst. People for whom I am thankful, and whom I think of with joy. So this kind of meditation naturally reinforces a thankful heart and a joyful spirit; as Paul says, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Now—this is is all easier said than done, in this age of high anxiety. I have to confess that I often forsake the peace of God because I am so wrapped up in anxious calculation. So I don’t claim enormous success, myself, but there are a couple of practical approaches that can be useful. These are simple things that I have found to be helpful at various times, and that can serve as an entry-point into the kind of meditation on the good that we have just been discussing.
The first is something that Mary Kay Rehard brought to us in July, in her presentation on mental health basics: deep breathing. Some of you probably already practice this. Mary Kay taught us to:
Breathe in through the nose, as deep a breath as you can take;
Imagine it flowing all the way down to your toes;
Notice your belly moving outward as you inhale;
Then exhale slowly through your mouth, through pursed lips (tiny opening);
The longer and slower the exhale, the better. Then repeat!
I gather that research has found this to have beneficial neurological effects. When I practice this, I often accompany the breath with various prayers, but that’s a subject for another time.
The second is a technique that comes from Richard Foster, the Quaker author, pastor and giant of the spiritual life. It’s a method of prayer he calls “hands down, hands up.” I’ve found it especially helpful when I’m anxious, and it can be paired with deep breathing:
Begin sitting quietly, in as relaxed and unhurried a state as you can be;
Intentionally place your palms down, resting on your knees;
In this posture, submit anxieties/cares/difficulties/needs to God; imagine laying them at the foot of the cross;
Take as long as is needed to empty yourself of these things;
Then begin the second phase: receiving from God;
Intentionally place your palms up, resting on your knees;
Ask God for whatever God has to give in response;
Take as long as is needed to receive God’s response for you.
The second phase may be a place of especially deep meditation on what is true, honorable, right, pure, etc.
The last thing I want to say today about anxiety also hearkens back to what Mary Kay and Kelly Burk taught us in July in their series on mental health. I want to acknowledge that while a lot of us are anxious about a great many things just now, this is more of a burden for some than for others. For some of us, it’s likely that this sea of anxiety we’re in will recede. At some point in the future, there will be fewer things to cause us worry. But there are some folks for whom anxiety is a more constant companion; those for whom it presents a real mental health issue, for which some kind of treatment is needed. I am not qualified to make any kind of a diagnosis in that area. I do think that the most important thing we can do, as a community of faith, is to allow for people to say, “I am not OK…” and to be OK with that; to say, “We hear you, and we are with you,” and to make that a matter for prayer and support. We neither want to stigmatize nor minimize the difficulty that anxiety poses for some.
Friends, in this anxious age, God continues to call us to pray as much as we can, as often as we can, as best we know how. This need not be a cause for further anxiety if we cannot find the words, or we don’t know how best to pray. Any means by which we can return to God in thankfulness and joy will suffice. And God continues to call us to share our thankfulness and joy with one another, just as we are called to share our burdens with one another.
Finally, beloved, let’s meditate together on...
whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable,
all those things that are excellent and worthy of praise.
1. With apologies to John Wesley, to whom it is attributed, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."
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