March 1, 2014
Yesterday the church hall was buzzing as around twenty five people came to St. Columba’s for a training day on mental health issues and older people. It was led by Julian Raffay, Chaplain with the Sheffield Care Trust that provides mental health services in the city, and Gemma Graham, a psychologist working with older adults. I’m so delighted we were able to host it, thanks to Briony Broome, and that a good number from St. Columba’s were able to attend. It’s good to find ways to start talking about mental health and mental illness, and the better informed we are, the better equipped we are to break down the barriers of prejudice and stigma that still surround it. If we’re going to be effective in loving our neighbour, we need to understand our neighbour’s mental health needs better. Figures from the Mental Health Foundation show that in any year, one in four adults in the U.K. will experience some kind of a mental health problem. Mental health difficulties are really common, and, again, according to the Mental Health Foundation, mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental health problem for which people seek treatment.
Today I’d like to continue our short series on the Sermon on the Mount by looking at Jesus’s words about anxiety. Perhaps it struck you how many times the word “worry” appeared in the passage. “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will wear.” “Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” “Do not sorry, saying “What will we eat” or “what will we drink?” Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”
Worry, or anxiety is a normal part of human experience. Stress is part of our body’s functioning, and it helps us to perform as best we can. I’ve led hundreds of services of worship, and yet I always feel a marginal level of anxiety before any service in church. I believe this enables me to give the best of myself , and were I to stop feeling any anxiety at all, I feel that might soon shade over in complacency and not caring. So in a funny way anxiety is a positive, one of God’s gifts to us. Yet we all know how corrosive anxiety is once it gets out of proportion: once we are worrying constantly, lying awake at night, worrying obsessively about small things. When anxiety starts to get in the way of normal life activities, then something is really wrong, and it’s perhaps time we had a chat with our G.P. about it.
As we turn to Jesus’s words about worry in the Sermon on the Mount we need to remember the context in which they are said. Jesus is not speaking as a mental health nurse talking to a client! He is speaking as a rabbi to his disciples, as God’s chosen one, the Messiah, describing to his followers the Good News of the Kingdom of God. He is speaking about a new way of living, which is based upon a radical trust in God, and which entails a completely new way of seeing the world, turning received values on their head. Jesus’s call to free our selves of worry don’t come to us as a bland reassurance – “keep on taking the pills, it’s all going to be fine”. Far from it. The words of the Sermon on the Mount come to us as challenge. They goad us, inspire us, and call us onwards.
The whole context for the teaching about anxiety is given by verse 33: “seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things (by which Jesus means food and clothing ) will be given to you as well. ” Following Jesus means a re-ordered sense of priorities – first seeking the kingdom and then everything else. Remember that Jesus had asked the disciples to leave their livelihoods to follow him. Yet Jesus is calling them on to ever deeper levels of faith. They might not know where the next meal is coming from – but they are not to worry about this. Just as God feeds the birds, so they will be fed – perhaps by foraging – perhaps by meals shared by hospitable strangers. Their clothes may be ragged, but they’re not to worry about how they will be replaced – God will provide, just as he provides for the lilies of the field. For Jesus, even King Solomon in the splendour of his royal attire is not as beautiful as the wild flowers of the meadows of Galilee.
So what’s at stake here is a complete re-orientation of our values. What we see here is that faith is not some abstract idea or way of thinking, but a life of profound trust, depending on God and his grace. This echoes the words of the prayer that Jesus has taught his disciples – he teaches them to pray “Give us today our daily bread.” We say this frequently, but perhaps miss its meaning – we depend on God for our food, it comes to us as a gift, and the focus is on the bread we need for this day. Jesus wants us to focus on the present day, the present moment, and not to concentrate on planning ahead and investing for the future. The Lord’s prayer names our dependency on God, for bread and forgiveness. Our most basic physical and spiritual needs are in God’s hands. And just as we need to pray for bread for today, and leave tomorrow’s needs for tomorrow, in the same way Jesus encourages us to leave tomorrow’s worries for tomorrow. “Tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Living by faith means living in the now, attending to the present moment, to this day, to the place and the people we are with now. The present moment is where we meet with God – it’s God’s gift to us. The Quakers talk about the “sacrament of the present moment.”
So Jesus tells us not to worry, and recalls us to the present moment. This is wise advice for worriers, because so much of anxiety consists of running through imagined future scenarios in our heads – what if this happens? what if that catastrophe occurs? what if I can’t cope? what if he, she, dies? Jesus is inviting us to trust God in a very direct way, and to leave the future in God’s hands. It’s like the words of that hymn “Father, I place into your hands the things I cannot do.” In our prayer we can acknowledge our fears, and leave them with God. We don’t need to go round and round in the way that worry so often does. Maybe it would help to visualise the person or the thing we are worrying about and in our mind’s eye leave it at the foot of the cross. The cross is the place of Christ’s redemptive love for the whole world. We need to take confidence in Christ’s saving love, and to know that whatever we are worrying about is part of that. Our worry may loom large in our own mind, but it’s not so big that God can’t cope with it. It’s not such an awful situation that Christ can’t redeem it. ” O you of little faith” Jesus says.
When we read Jesus’s words about anxiety, it’s interesting to notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say everything’s going to be O.K. Rather he’s pragmatic and realistic: “tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Nowhere are we promised that following Jesus is a passport to a trouble-free life. The nature of human life is beautifully described in the passage we heard from Romans chapter 8:
We know that the whole of creation has been groaning as the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so but we ourselves who have the first-fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we eagerly for our adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies.”
So if you haven’t noticed, that’s us. We ourselves who have the first-fruits of the spirit – we Christian people, sharing in God’s life and God’s love in Jesus, we too share in creation’s groaning. Anxiety, depression, mental illness – they’re part of the groaning of creation. And yet that’s not all. I am convinced, Says Paul the Apostle, that nothing will able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. He is with us, and our present sufferings cannot compare to the glory that is to come.
Frances Eccleston Feb 2014