Sunday, October 30, 2011
by Ellen Sims
One of our lay leaders very ably preached yesterday’s sermon at Open Table. Therefore, I’m posting today a sermon I preached a couple of Sundays ago as guest preacher at Cornerstone MCC in Mobile.
Sermon text: Matthew 6: 25-34.
I bring you warm greetings from Open Table United Church of Christ. We want you to know that we are holding you in all prayer as Cornerstone transitions to the next chapter in your brave and proud history as a congregation. God is surely guiding you. But interim periods can be anxious times, even for courageous congregations. Open Table, a brand new congregation, also knows something about being on a journey into the unknown. Maybe this is a time in the life of both congregations to follow Jesus’ advice and “consider the lilies.”
Or maybe we need to consider “the Lily.” Lily, you see, is my dog, and she is my role model for living nonanxiously. While I’m stewing over a problem, my pampered pet is usually dreaming doggy dreams at my side, not a care in the world. Sometimes it helps me just to curl up beside her on the carpet and become her student for awhile. I watch her chest rise and fall in a regular rhythm. I match my breathing to hers. I dig my fingers through her thick fur and make her layers of muscle and fat ripple at my touch like batter being poured into a cake pan. “Mmmm,” she rumbles her deep, growly thanks from some imperturbable place in her soul. “Mmmm,” I echo. “Mmmm” is sometimes the best prayer I pray on an anxious day.
Lily—with her wide-set shoulders, thick neck, square head, and heavy coat—looks more like a bear than a lily. No delicate flower, she. But Lily was already named when we adopted her 14 years ago. And despite her age and girth and wide-set gait, she has her own loveliness: an ease of being in the world, a comfortableness in her own fur, a patience with what is. She doesn’t worry—as I do—that her days on this earth can’t be much longer. And the simplest things delight her: guests arriving at the front door, every move I make, and especially her dinner bowl. Just the mention of “dinner” turns the old girl into a whirling dervish. Dinner time, for her, is like winning the lottery–every day of her life.
And so I regularly try to do a little of what the Sermon on the Mount teaches: I try to “consider the Lily.” At points this week I was strongly tempted (or inspired—depending on your perspective) to bring “The Lily” with me this morning so that you might likewise “consider” her yourself. We’d have learned more about living non-anxiously by watching her sleep for 20 minutes than we might from this sermon.
But you graciously invited me to provide a sermon, so a sermon you shall have. It’s always risky to preach to folks whom you admire but don’t know all that well. So I have no idea if this interim period at Cornerstone is making anyone here the least bit anxious. I don’t know if the current state of the economy has given any of you the jitters. I don’t know if national and international events concern you. I don’t know if conflict among friends or heath issues for you or loved ones have beset any of you with worry. But I do know that even people of great faith have moments of anxiety. Perhaps you need, as I do sometimes, a chance to consider the lilies.
So let’s sit at the feet of Jesus and do that. Notice that Jesus’s sermon touches upon perhaps the chief cause of anxiety: money. Not much has changed in that regard in the last 2000 years. Whether you think of yourself as a “have” or a “have not,” you can probably trace a great deal of stress in your life to the task of surviving financially or striving financially. Jesus’ sermon clearly says that we can pursue God’s purposes only when we are not possessed by our possessions.
But as I look further into this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I find something troubling. I agree with his point that materialism is not the way to serve God and is good a way to increase stress. But to be honest, there is a part of this scripture passage that doesn’t quite ring true. I want to push back against the text in order to go deeper into it. I want to question Jesus’ assumption that the God who clothed the lilies so resplendently will clothe us, too. That’s what Jesus suggests. But is it true? I want to call to Jesus’s attention that there are plenty of ragged or naked people around the world God forgot to dress. Further, Jesus’s sanguine observation that the heavenly Father feeds the birds and so will feed us makes me want to object: “But, Jesus, birds go hungry sometimes. Sometimes birds go hungry. And so do children.” Others might worry a bit that telling people blithely that God will feed and clothe them could encourage laziness and freeloading. Besides all that, this passage seems to praise brainless plants for their lack of a concept of the future. Of course the lilies don’t worry. They lack that capacity!
When I was 5 years old, my family vacationed in Key West. One day my parents left my younger siblings and me at a day care center while they went deep sea fishing all day long. I’m sure we received good care that day. But this vast facility was on a military base, and the setting was so institutional, so large, and so military it seemed they were warehousing children. I cried the entire interminable day. The uniformed woman who kept telling me to stop crying just intimidated rather than calmed me. At one point she gestured to my 1-year-old brother and 3-year-old sister, playing contentedly nearby, and tried to shame me into cheerfulness by saying, “Look how nicely they’re behaving, and you’re a big 5-year-old crying like a baby.” I replied: “Well, they’re just too stupid to know to be scared of you.” I have “considered” that the contented confidence of wild flowers and wild birds—and a domesticated dog—is likewise misplaced.
So I want to tell Jesus that, though I really appreciate his attempt at assurance, the worst way to calm a worried soul is to tell her not to worry. I mean, it’s the worriers of the world like you and me who work hard enough so the rest of the world doesn’t have to worry, right? Rather than decreasing my anxiety, this text—that has gentled many an anxious heart—kind of agitates me.
Until I read it poetically. And indeed there is scholarly evidence that in this beloved section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is quoting from an ancient Aramaic poem.
Here’s how I think this poetic passage is meant to operate. Readers see the birds of the heavens and wild flowers of the field as symbols of God’s graciousness. We’re to image the iconic wild bird or wild flower and in a sense to meditate on that image until, like a repeated mantra, it calms the spirit. We’re to treat these symbols, not as scientific evidence of providential care, but as conveyors of a felt truth of God’s goodness. It is not a literal fact that all birds are fed. But based on the fact that these creatures have no worries—fears, maybe, but no worries—Jesus tells a deeper spiritual truth: that lives aimed at ushering in God’s reign of peace are not anxious, that taking one day at a time is the best prescription for sanity, and that worry never helps matters anyway. Sometimes I need to let the images rather than the words speak to my heart. Sometimes I need to turn off the worrying part of my brain—and just meditate on the flowers, the sparrows.
Then at other times I need to turn to other sources for practical advice. Note that Jesus is speaking this warning against worry to a crowd that is, in effect, his congregation. He was talking about the effect of anxiety upon groups. Much recent research explores the role of worry in systems of relationships. Let me share some insights based on family systems theory, which recognizes that anxious people affect the groups to which they belong in different ways. Churches in particular can be negatively affected by anxiety.[i]
You may have noticed how some members of a congregation get anxious over the littlest thing. Others take just about everything in stride. Those who carry around a lot of anxiety know it is a very uncomfortable feeling. Anxiety is more uncomfortable than fear, because fear is a reaction to the known; sometimes we don’t even know why we’re feeling anxious. Anxiety is a physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual response to feeling out of one’s comfort zone, out of place, out of control. Change always brings some degree of anxiety. Changes in church staffing, for example, can bring on anxiety. But change is happening in all areas of our life. We live in a time of rapid change.
When we first start to feel anxious, we may need to do some simple self-assessment. What are we worrying about? If it’s something we can change, we can decide upon a course of action. If it’s not something we can change, we need to find ways to deal with the anxiety. Or it may kill us. Anxiety can have harmful physical effects on us. Sometimes there are physical means of reducing anxiety by, for example, exercising or meditating or getting more rest or improving our nutrition. We may need to seek counseling, to pray, to find other healthy means of dealing with stress.
But groups get anxious, too, and this scripture presents churches like yours and like mine with an opportunity to learn together about organizational anxiety. Every organization is anxious to some extent. A few churches have such a high level of anxiety that they see everything as threatening. A critical ingredient in churches that have lower levels of anxiety are those with leaders (official as well as unofficial leaders) who remain calm, who can take things lightly, who don’t overreact, who keep a sense of humor, who assume the best of others, who relish change and new ideas and different perspectives. Nonanxious individuals can create nonanxious groups. Anxiety, you see, is contagious. Worried people, in seeking to relieve their anxiety, “pass it on.” And so it spreads. Anxious individuals then can feel a little bit better because once someone else is worried, too, they feel they don’t have to hold all the worry. Unfortunately, others then feel worse. One individual can change an entire congregation, for better or worse, by changing his/her behavior.
Let me name a few negative responses to group anxiety and then share healthier responses.
- Avoidance/denial. Sometimes a family or a congregation has a pattern of avoiding issues that make us anxious, pretending a problem does not exist, or refusing to discuss an issue that needs addressing. Churches in particular avoid conflict. Christians sometimes think conflict is wrong, but conflict is inevitable and it’s only wrong when we deal with it in harmful ways. But often in a church the majority give in to a few people who are going to get upset and who need to have things their way. When that happens, we empower these people out of a mistaken notion of Christian kindness or selflessness. In fact, that is dysfunctional behavior that hurts the growth and health of the entire group.
- Sometimes groups will jump toward a “quick fix” without understanding the root of problem. Congregations can be so anxious about a problem that they leap to the first solution that comes to mind.
- Sometimes groups scapegoat an individual; they blame and label one person or one group in the church. Systems theory says there’s always a complex network of influences on the group so there is never a single “cause” of a problem. Often a church needs to feel the pastor is entirely the problem so there can be a convenient way to locate the source of their anxiety. Again, the problem in a group is never the result of just one person’s behavior.
- Some anxious people over function in a group. That is, they give unsolicited advice, worry excessively about someone else, micromanage, take on too heavy a load, criticize, take responsibility for others’ feelings. They have control issues.
- Other anxious people underfunction. Their worry causes them to avoid decisions, not take initiative, constantly seek advice, adopt a “helpless” persona, believe others are responsible for their feelings. They have self-assertion issues.
The greater the anxiety, the harder it is to make good decisions. Emotion can always trump reason. Groups usually make decisions based on perception, not reality; on emotion, not information. Handling anxiety in a congregation is important.
Let me now suggest 4 healthy ways to manage group anxiety when it inevitably develops in any church:
- Take stock of the level of stress YOU are carrying in your life. Are you carrying that into your church? Try not to pass it on. That does not mean don’t share your needs and concerns! Not at all. Do share honest feelings and thoughts and prayer concerns and needs–but without sounding an alarm that others need to panic and get worried together.
- Be self-aware (of your own motives, feelings, needs) but also be other-aware. That means to be compassionate without being engulfed by others or determined by them. We remember that we can empathize without being responsible for others’ feelings. We focus on fixing self, not others. We cannot fix others.
- Be clear about your church’s mission: Cornerstone comes together for something more than mere self-preservation. Your mission is not simply to survive as a church. You have a unique and important purpose in our city. Mobile needs this congregation. Your mission requires that your members remain strong in your bond with one another under the bond of Christ’s love. Your purpose goes beyond yourselves. Any congregation that is focused just on surviving . . . won’t.
- Appreciate that friction is a part of life. If we didn’t have some anxiety, we would not learn and grow. Relish different points of view. Embrace change. Hear different ideas without getting defensive. Keep growing.
Having strayed into a very practical mode just now, let me return to a poetical perspective and close with the image of the non-anxious lily. I share this in the spirit of Jesus’s simple poem. This poem is titled “The Lily” and it is written by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, Mary Oliver.
[i] This information comes mainly from a presentation by Dr. Dan Bagby at a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Memphis in 2008.