Eph. 4: 4: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
What I am about to say I hope is of help to those of us who have to deal with ordinary, everyday stresses, like getting to work, like, Can I finish my work on time? like dealing with matters in the home, to more sporadic and public ones, like, will I be ready for the next game? Will I do well? Will we win? And my spoken presentation in front of so many people at work or at school? To really big ones, like how will we manage or reverse climate change? Or, how will we respond to the ever-growing likelihood of war in the Persian Gulf? Will I be deported? Or will someone in my family? Or among my friends?
There, are you feeling anxious yet?
I am. Even after 30-some years in the pulpit, I feel some anxiety before and while sharing a message. On a very rare occasion my fear is bad; most of the time, it’s just a niggling, nagging little thing in the back of my mind. It starts well before Sunday morning, earlier in the week, as I wonder, What does God want me to say from this text? What do you need to hear? What do I need to hear? Is what I’m about to say faithful to God, to you and to the text? I’m never 100% sure about all that.
I think of that little bit of fear as my friend. It keeps me attentive, on my toes, trying to do right by all that is good and godly, including you. God forbid that a preacher should get cocksure, careless, overly self-confident and forget the priceless value of all the treasures we have been entrusted, including each other. As long as we hold anyone and anything precious, then of course we will have some level of care and concern on its behalf. If not, it could mean that we do not care enough about things that deserve some care. A life totally without any care or anxiety, that’s on the other side of the Pearly Gates.
Meanwhile, this side of the Pearly Gates, we must manage anxiety lest it manage us. That is easier for some people than for others. Some of us may have bodies and backgrounds that leave our adrenaline fight or flight responses on a hair trigger alert to every danger, real or imagined, no fault of our own. If anyone’s doctor says, “You need medication for your high baseline anxiety,” my advice is to take it.
Others are just so laid back by constitution that they can read their own obituaries in the morning newspaper and say, “How interesting; that might explain a few things.” Such people might need to learn how to let people know that they care, when it doesn’t look like they do, even when they do care.
But anxiety is more than a personal matter. Anxiety can run amok, take control and manage families, churches, communities and entire countries into violent and self-destructive behavior. Every war grows out of anxiety. Hitler convinced Germans and Austrians to attack and invade their neighbors and to kill six million Jews by stirring up anxieties about their own survival, and then manipulating those anxieties. So did Osama Bin Laden inspire and lead Al Qaeda, by stirring up and manipulating anxiety about the dignity and the survival of the global Islamic community. The same is happening with our so-called “War on Terror.” We have been manipulated by fear into provoking more of the very things we fear, in a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy.
With the spread of digital social media—Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messaging, and more, we can broadcast even more lies, half-truths and fearmongering to everyone, everywhere, and more quickly. Of the five thousand advertisements coming at us every day, probably 99% of them at least hint that we should be afraid of something that their product alone can address, supposedly. Politicians of the left and right know that the easiest way to galvanize support is to stir up anxiety about and against those who differ or disagree with them. Governance then degenerates from a shared search for truth and effectiveness among all the partial perspectives that we carry, to a winner-takes-all, scorched earth, ideological demolition derby that leaves everybody burned, battered and embittered. And we’re only getting started on next year’s election. Sometimes churches and denominations can do the same with questions of theology and moral discernment.
And that while our level of comfort, convenience and conquest of diseases like smallpox and polio surpass the wildest dreams of our grandparents. For example: During our daughter, Claire’s first year of life, we lived in Belgium, one of the richest countries of the world. It has one of the most generous social safety nets for the poor, the unemployed, the elderly and the ill. You’d have to work very hard at going homeless or hungry there. And yet, Belgians would sometimes ask us, “How can you bring a child into such a terrible world as this?”
From there we went to Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the highest levels of infant and childhood mortality, and people there would ask us, “You aren’t stopping with just one child, are you?” After Emily was born, people then asked, “You aren’t stopping with two, are you?”
Go figure. But in Belgium, the memories and evidence of two World Wars were still fresh and present. And both NATO and the Communist Bloc nations were pointing new generations of nuclear missiles at each other. In Burkina Faso, people fear that not enough of their children will survive to help the family and care for you in your old age. Plenty of anxiety in both countries, just different things to be anxious about.
The Apostle Paul and the Philippians had plenty of things to fear, too. When Paul and his missionary team first left Antioch to plant churches, I would wager that they had gone forth with the same challenge and charge, the same confidence, energy and enthusiasm with which many graduates leave high school or college, with which I left seminary 30 years ago, and with which we leave many worship services and church conferences today: with encouragement and confidence to go forth and change the world, and make it a better place, by this Tuesday.
And yet, there sat Paul in chains, in prison, for at least as much time as he had spent starting and serving churches. Even when he was not in prison, Paul’s life and labors were one long string of shipwrecks, stonings, beatings, whippings, lynch mobs, sleepless nights and food-less day.
How can Paul then tell the Philippian Christians to rejoice, not once, but twice in the same breath, with the same ink, when they too were experiencing persecution and opposition, plus some false teaching that was infecting their ranks? And some of their leaders were at odds with each other? What kind of impact or influence could this small group have on themselves and each other, let alone their city, or the world?
And how can Paul say to them, “Let your gentleness be evident to all” when the natural human response to suffering, setbacks and persecution would be resentment, revenge and retaliation? Or cynicism and despair? Wouldn’t showing your gentleness just invite more abuse, and make one even more of a doormat, a scapegoat, a patsy and a punching bag for a hateful, hostile world?
And yet, this is Paul’s lightest and cheeriest letter. Among other things, it’s a thank you letter for financial support that the Philippians sent him during his imprisonment. Besides, what would resentment, revenge and retaliation accomplish? How would cynicism or despair make the world any better? Yet those are the very temptations we face after seeking so long to change the world and make it a better place, and feeling all the more powerless, angry and anxious for it? Sometimes we find that our fellow change-agents can do each other just as dirty as those whom we seek to change. And then there’s the life-long struggle to change ourselves for the better. That’s why so many people give up and check out of benevolent organizations, out of causes and campaigns, even out of church, ministry and mission work, because, over time, they come to despair of changing themselves and their fellows for the better, let alone the world.
But that leaves something so very important out of the picture, a game-changer, which transformed Paul from the angry, ideological crusader of his Pharisee years, into a patient saint and prayer warrior even in chains: he says it in verse 5: “The Lord is near.”
“The Lord….is near.” That’s where Paul finds the strength, the hope and the peace to keep loving and laboring in prayer, correspondence and consultation, even in a dank and dark dungeon, even when there’s no major improvement in the world that he can point to and say, “I did that!” That’s why Paul can say, “Rejoice!” not once but twice. He can say, “Rejoice!” because… “The Lord is near.”
We can take that either to mean that the Lord’s return is near in time, or that the Lord is intimately close to us, no further away from us than a prayer, a prayer no longer nor more wordy than his name, or a simple word, like “Mercy.” I’d settle for either or both meanings of “The Lord is near.”
When Paul goes on to say, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,” he’s not just whistling in the dark. He is speaking from experience, as a survivor of many very long, dark nights of the soul, when surely, he had to wonder, What became of Christ’s promise to make me his spokesperson before royalty in Rome? Has God forgotten me down here in this dungeon? Did I do something that disqualified me and nullified God’s promise and purpose for me? Have I failed somehow?
If such thoughts and questions sound even vaguely familiar to us, let me guess: have you heard these most pressing and distressing whispers of fear, despair and doubt in the darkest hours of a long night? Like at 2 or 3 AM? That’s when my fears and frustrations loom largest in my troubled imagination: in those hours when I am least able to do anything about them.
When those anxious, troubled, torturing doubts and fears assail us, when the Father of Lies and the Accuser of the Brethren says, “You’re responsible! Shame on you if you don’t care enough to stay awake and wring your hands all night long! Aren’t you part of the problem if you aren’t part of the solution, even right now, at 2 AM, at least by worrying? What gives you the right to just go back to sleep?”
That’s not all that different from what the first-ever recorded snake-in-the-grass said to Eve: “You shall be like God!” Even our good intentions, and our desire to “change the world” and “make it a better place,” can be twisted into a form of violence. Not the violence of the gun, the bomb or the fist, but a violence of the spirit, when we shoulder burdens that belong only to God, as though we could outdo God at being God. It’s the kind of violence that the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton described in his journal, when he wrote:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” Thomas Merton
Again, this is not just a personal, private matter. Most armies that shouldered their rifles and marched off to war believed that they were also shouldering their responsibility to fix the world and make it a better place. But no commandment of God tells us to shoulder God’s burden and be singlehandedly responsible for saving the world. Instead, today’s words from Paul’s prison darkness tell us that we have the permission of God, even the command of God to do two things: 1) reject our anxious, incessant thoughts of over-responsibility, regret and resentment, and replace them with “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” Paul says,”—think about such things.”
And secondly, 6 “…in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Like our friends in AA say, “Let go and let God.” Turning our thoughts toward God and all goodness, and taking our cares to God, those are responsible things to do. Start there, and that will make the world a better place, by letting God make of us more peaceful people, who can do more peaceable and productive things than infecting everyone else around us with our anger, angst and anxiety. And so, we become the peace which God uses to spread in the world. Without such peace, the peace of God that surpasses our human understanding, we cannot contribute to the peace of our communities, our country, nor the world. For we cannot share any peace that we have not ourselves received.
This Peace of God that surpasses all understanding is not something we achieve; it is something we receive; It is not something we create; it is something we share. It is not a reward that we earn for worrying and working hard enough; it is, again, a gift that we accept. And God can give it in the most surprising situations. Like in a lion’s den, for Daniel. Like in Paul’s prison cell. Like among the Philippian Christians as they faced persecution, opposition and division within their own ranks. Like among the Anabaptist martyrs of the 16th Century, in their dungeons and prison cells, or on the way to their own public execution. Like in a Nazi concentration camp, when the Polish Catholic priest, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, calmly offered his life in place of another prisoner who was selected at random for execution. Like the surprising and counter-intuitive peace that I have sometimes found among ICE detainees lost in the labyrinth of our immigration system. And the inspiring peace of my late brother-in-law, David, during his long, losing struggle against bone cancer, who told me, “Whatever happens, God wins.” At his request, that was the theme of his memorial eulogy: “Whatever happens, God wins.”
I would wager that none of these people I have mentioned felt much peace when the seriousness of their situation first struck them. Of course, we feel loss, grief and fear if we care about life, about justice and love, about ourselves and each other. But the God of Peace is near, offering the Peace of God, an unearned, unmerited, surprising gift which so surpasses the limits of our normal, human logic that we might think that accepting such a gift is crazy, or worse, irresponsible.
The peace of God is not just the cessation of hostilities, but a quality of the God of Peace. It’s the same Peace that God spoke into being with his original blessing on Creation, when God proclaimed it all good; the same peace that God and Adam and Eve shared when walking together in the garden in the cool of the day without any fear, shame, guilt or regret, in harmony one with another.
Whatever our situation, The God of Peace is near, ready and desirous to give us the Peace of God. Yes, He cares about the sufferings of people in Yemen, Syria, Central America and our southern border. The God of Peace cares about our afflictions and anxieties, too. And he would enlist us as blessed peacemakers in helping others, anywhere, receive the peace of God. But we can only share with others what we ourselves have accepted and received, by prayer, by cultivating a good and godly inner life, and by letting God be God. For whatever happens, God wins. And God is near.